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Death of marriage in Scandinavia

By Stanley Kurtz, 3/10/2004

IN THE Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's dueling opinions on same-sex marriage, each side places the burden of proof on the other. The majority in the Goodridge decision insists there is "no rational reason" for defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The minority chides the majority for its "blind faith" that there are no potential dangers to so radical a change. Both sides lack evidence on the real-world effects of same-sex marriage. Yet evidence is in. Marriage is dying in Scandinavia, which has had marriage-like same-sex registered partnerships for over a decade.

Data from European demographers and statistical bureaus show that a majority of children in Sweden and Norway are now born out of wedlock, as are 60 percent of first-born children in Denmark. In socially liberal districts of Norway, where the idea of same-sex registered partnerships is widely accepted, marriage itself has almost entirely disappeared.

Certainly Scandinavia's system of registered partnerships is not the only cause of marital decline. Factors like contraception, abortion, women in the work force, individualism, secularism, and the welfare state are also at work. These factors are weakening marriage throughout the West. Yet scholars note that many family changes that eventually sweep the West show up first in Scandinavia, probably because of Scandinavia's unusually large welfare state and its notably strong secularism.

Same-sex registered partnerships are Scandinavia's latest contribution to Western family change -- a sharp cultural separation between the ideas of marriage and parenthood. Even before the establishment of registered partnerships, many Scandinavians were starting to have their first child outside of marriage. Although the couple's relationship was still considered experimental through the birth of the first child, most parents did marry before the birth of the second child.

The problem with this system is that unmarried parents break up at two to three times the rate of married parents. So as Scandinavians separated the ideas of marriage and parenthood, family dissolution rates rose -- placing first-born children at particular risk. The growing Scandinavian separation of marriage and parenthood made it difficult to deny marriage to same-sex couples. Yet the creation of registered partnerships has only locked in and reinforced the separation between the ideas of marriage and parenthood, thereby accelerating marital decline.

Same-sex registered partnerships have contributed to Scandinavian marital decline in several ways. The controversy over registered partnerships created a divide in Norway's Lutheran Church. The most striking example can be found in Norway's socially liberal Nordland County, where churches fly rainbow flags. The flags signal that clergy in same-sex registered partnerships are welcome and that clergy who would preach against homosexual behavior are banned. Yet only these conservative clergy still preach against unmarried parenthood. So the effective purge of conservative clergy from Nordland County (where marriage is now rare) has removed a vital cultural barrier against the practice of parental cohabitation.

For secular Scandinavians as well, same-sex registered partnerships have reinforced the view that marriage is unrelated to parenthood. When Sweden gave registered partners adoption rights in 2003, supporters of the change identified the acceptance of gay adoption with acceptance of single parenthood.

Socially conservative districts of Norway had relatively low out-of-wedlock birthrates in the early '90s, when registered partnerships were established. Since then, conservative districts have seen a substantial rise in the out-of-wedlock birthrates, for both firstborn and subsequent children. Even before the establishment of registered partnerships, most parents in socially liberal districts, like Norway's Nordland County, had their first child out of wedlock. Today, not only 80 percent of first-born children in Nordland but nearly 60 percent of subsequent children are born out of wedlock. Clearly, in a place where de facto gay marriage has gained almost complete acceptance, marriage itself has almost completely disappeared.

With increases in the rate of middle-class parental cohabitation, Americans have already seen signs of the Scandinavian family pattern. In its 2000 report "Principles of the Law of Family Dissolution," the influential American Law Institute has proposed legal reforms that would equalize marriage and cohabitation, Scandinavian style. By getting Americans used to a strong separation between marriage and parenthood, gay marriage would draw out these trends and put us firmly on the path to the Scandinavian system. And unlike Scandinavia, America has an underclass, whose families would suffer greatly from a further separation between marriage and parenthood.

The core issue before the constitutional convention is the fate of the institution of marriage. Few of us want to return to the 1950s in the matter of homosexuality. Yet many of us also worry about the effects on the institution of marriage of so profound a change. The Scandinavian example shows that there are valid -- and secular -- reasons to believe that same-sex marriage will undercut marriage itself. As the minority warned, the Supreme Judicial Court has acted without considering the evidence. Yet it is not too late for the people to rectify the court's mistake.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company