The Corner

Denmark, IVF, and Gay Marriage

There is fascinating news out of Denmark, important in itself, but also bearing closely on the debate over same-sex marriage. It seems that an unusually high rate of resort to in-vitro fertilization (IVF) has been “artificially” propping up Denmark’s fertility rate for some years now. The Economist has an interesting article on the phenomenon (“In vitro veritas“). Here’s a passage:

Without IVF, then, the number of Danes would be shrinking fast. That it is not may have something to do with the fact that in Denmark the taxpayer will cover up to six cycles of IVF Treatment. In Britain, by contrast, couples are supposed to be entitled to three cycles. In practice, many of the local trusts that dish the money out do not pay for any cycles at all.

The Economist ends by suggesting that “…if the countries of Europe do wish to keep their populations up, making IVF more widely available might be a good way of doing so.” Making much the same point, the BBC provides a helpful chart (“More than 3m babies born from IVF“). Notice that the number of IVF-assisted births in Denmark is far higher than that of any other European country, notably including even its Scandinavian counterparts, Sweden and Norway. By itself, this phenomenon raises complex and fascinating policy questions. Following Denmark, should Europe now turn to state-supported IVF as a way of combating low fertility rates?

But this newly revealed development also returns us to the question of same-sex registered partnerships and marriage in Europe. Denmark is the example most frequently cited by those who claim that same-sex partnerships have had no adverse effect upon European marriage. Against this, I’ve argued from the beginning that the relatively steady marriage and out-of-wedlock birthrates in Denmark cannot be taken at face value. Government policies distinct to Denmark have artificially inflated child-bearing by older couples, I’ve argued. And this “catching up” has disguised rising cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birthrates among younger Danes. (See especially, “No Nordic Bliss,”)

Critics like William Eskridge and Darren Spedale have never responded to my point about “catching up.” Instead, they simply repeat the seemingly favorable statistics from Denmark. Yet now it appears that my point about the Danish fertility rate (and thus the marriage rate) being “artificially” raised by a unique combination of government policies is even more true than I’d realized. At this point, it seems clear that any serious consideration of same-sex partnerships and marriage in Europe has got to take into account the extraordinary news that Denmark now serves as the world-wide capital of IVF-based fertility–to the point where its population size is being significantly shaped by the procedure.

I’m not entirely convinced that Denmark case will successfully generalize as a fertility strategy. As I’ve noted previously, historically, Denmark (where nearly all women work, and “housewives” are virtually unknown) has had much more limited parental-leave policies than other Scandinavian countries. That changed in the 1990′s, when liberalized parental leave policies unleashed pent-up demand for parenting among Denmark’s older working women. That phenomenon, as much as the widespread availability of IVF, is probably behind the unusual surge of parenting among older Danish women. It’s unclear whether countries without this specific profile of pent-up parenting demand among a nearly universal population of full-time working women will mimic Denmark’s fertility story, even if the state does go in for large scale support of IVF

Another question is what, if any, effects on cultural conceptions of parenthood and family life might flow from the truly large-scale use of IVF and other artificial reproductive technologies throughout the West. For a thoughtful take on the downside of IVF and ART (“artificial reproductive technologies) see “Parenthood at Any Price,” by Cheryl Miller. And for a more positive, but still somewhat shocking take, read the book Miller is reviewing, Liza Mundy’s Everything Conceivable. In any case, the apparent stability of Denmark’s marriage and fertility rates in fact seem to disguise a far more radical and interesting story.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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