2005-01-23 10:06:16 UTC
during the marriage debate, so as to hide their opposition to marriage
itself. The goal of the gay marriage movements in both Norway and Denmark,
say Halvorsen and Bech, was not marriage but social approval for
The End of Marriage in Scandinavia
The "conservative case" for same-sex marriage collapses.
by Stanley Kurtz
MARRIAGE IS SLOWLY DYING IN SCANDINAVIA. A majority of children in Sweden
and Norway are born out of wedlock. Sixty percent of first-born children in
Denmark have unmarried parents. Not coincidentally, these countries have had
something close to full gay marriage for a decade or more. Same-sex marriage
has locked in and reinforced an existing Scandinavian trend toward the
separation of marriage and parenthood. The Nordic family pattern--including
gay marriage--is spreading across Europe. And by looking closely at it we
can answer the key empirical question underlying the gay marriage debate.
Will same-sex marriage undermine the institution of marriage? It already
More precisely, it has further undermined the institution. The separation of
marriage from parenthood was increasing; gay marriage has widened the
separation. Out-of-wedlock birthrates were rising; gay marriage has added to
the factors pushing those rates higher. Instead of encouraging a
society-wide return to marriage, Scandinavian gay marriage has driven home
the message that marriage itself is outdated, and that virtually any family
form, including out-of-wedlock parenthood, is acceptable.
This is not how the situation has been portrayed by prominent gay marriage
advocates journalist Andrew Sullivan and Yale law professor William Eskridge
Jr. Sullivan and Eskridge have made much of an unpublished study of Danish
same-sex registered partnerships by Darren Spedale, an independent
researcher with an undergraduate degree who visited Denmark in 1996 on a
Fulbright scholarship. In 1989, Denmark had legalized de facto gay marriage
(Norway followed in 1993 and Sweden in 1994). Drawing on Spedale, Sullivan
and Eskridge cite
evidence that since then, marriage has strengthened. Spedale reported that
in the six years following the establishment of registered partnerships in
Denmark (1990-1996), heterosexual marriage rates climbed by 10 percent,
while heterosexual divorce rates declined by 12 percent. Writing in the
McGeorge Law Review, Eskridge claimed that Spedale's study had exposed the
"hysteria and irresponsibility" of those who predicted gay marriage would
undermine marriage. Andrew Sullivan's Spedale-inspired piece was subtitled,
"The case against same-sex marriage crumbles."
Yet the half-page statistical analysis of heterosexual marriage in Darren
Spedale's unpublished paper doesn't begin to get at the truth about the
decline of marriage in Scandinavia during the nineties. Scandinavian
marriage is now so weak that statistics on marriage and divorce no longer
mean what they used to.
Take divorce. It's true that in Denmark, as elsewhere in Scandinavia,
divorce numbers looked better in the nineties. But that's because the pool
of married people has been shrinking for some time. You can't divorce
without first getting married. Moreover, a closer look at Danish divorce in
the post-gay marriage decade reveals disturbing trends. Many Danes have
stopped holding off divorce until their kids are grown. And Denmark in the
nineties saw a 25 percent increase in cohabiting couples with children. With
fewer parents marrying, what used to show up in statistical tables as early
divorce is now the unrecorded breakup of a cohabiting couple with children.
What about Spedale's report that the Danish marriage rate increased 10
percent from 1990 to 1996? Again, the news only appears to be good. First,
there is no trend. Eurostat's just-released marriage rates for 2001 show
declines in Sweden and Denmark (Norway hasn't reported). Second, marriage
statistics in societies with very low rates (Sweden registered the lowest
marriage rate in recorded history in 1997) must be carefully parsed. In his
study of the Norwegian family in the nineties, for example, Christer Hyggen
shows that a small increase in Norway's marriage rate over the past decade
has more to do with the institution's decline than with any renaissance.
Much of the increase in Norway's marriage rate is driven by older couples
"catching up." These couples belong to the first generation that accepts
rearing the first born child out of wedlock. As they bear second children,
some finally get married. (And even this tendency to marry at the birth of a
second child is weakening.) As for the rest of the increase in the Norwegian
marriage rate, it is largely attributable to remarriage among the large
number of divorced.
Spedale's report of lower divorce rates and higher marriage rates in
post-gay marriage Denmark is thus misleading. Marriage is now so weak in
Scandinavia that shifts in these rates no longer mean what they would in
America. In Scandinavian demography, what counts is the out-of-wedlock
birthrate, and the family dissolution rate.
The family dissolution rate is different from the divorce rate. Because so
many Scandinavians now rear children outside of marriage, divorce rates are
unreliable measures of family weakness. Instead, we need to know the rate at
which parents (married or not) split up. Precise statistics on family
dissolution are unfortunately rare. Yet the studies that have been done show
that throughout Scandinavia (and the West) cohabiting couples with children
break up at two to three times the rate of married parents. So rising rates
of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth stand as proxy for rising rates of
By that measure, Scandinavian family dissolution has only been worsening.
Between 1990 and 2000, Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate rose from 39 to 50
percent, while Sweden's rose from 47 to 55 percent. In Denmark
out-of-wedlock births stayed level during the nineties (beginning at 46
percent and ending at 45 percent). But the leveling off seems to be a
function of a slight increase in fertility among older couples, who marry
only after multiple births (if they don't break up first). That shift masks
the 25 percent increase during the nineties in cohabitation and unmarried
parenthood among Danish couples (many of them young). About 60 percent of
first born children in Denmark now have unmarried parents. The rise of
fragile families based on cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing means
that during the nineties, the total rate of family dissolution in
Scandinavia significantly increased.
Scandinavia's out-of-wedlock birthrates may have risen more rapidly in the
seventies, when marriage began its slide. But the push of that rate past the
50 percent mark during the nineties was in many ways more disturbing. Growth
in the out-of-wedlock birthrate is limited by the tendency of parents to
marry after a couple of births, and also by the persistence of relatively
conservative and religious districts. So as out-of-wedlock childbearing
pushes beyond 50 percent, it is reaching the toughest areas of cultural
resistance. The most important trend of the post-gay marriage decade may be
the erosion of the tendency to marry at the birth of a second child. Once
even that marker disappears, the path to the complete disappearance of
marriage is open.
And now that married parenthood has become a minority phenomenon, it has
lost the critical mass required to have socially normative force. As Danish
sociologists Wehner, Kambskard, and Abrahamson describe it, in the wake of
the changes of the nineties, "Marriage is no longer a precondition for
settling a family--neither legally nor normatively. . . . What defines and
makes the foundation of the Danish family can be said to have moved from
marriage to parenthood."
So the highly touted half-page of analysis from an unpublished paper that
supposedly helps validate the "conservative case" for gay marriage--i.e.,
that it will encourage stable marriage for heterosexuals and homosexuals
alike--does no such thing. Marriage in Scandinavia is in deep decline, with
children shouldering the burden of rising rates of family dissolution. And
the mainspring of the decline--an increasingly sharp separation between
marriage and parenthood--can be linked to gay marriage. To see this, we need
to understand why marriage is in trouble in Scandinavia to begin with.
SCANDINAVIA has long been a bellwether of family change. Scholars take the
Swedish experience as a prototype for family developments that will, or
could, spread throughout the world. So let's have a look at the decline of
In Sweden, as elsewhere, the sixties brought contraception, abortion, and
growing individualism. Sex was separated from procreation, reducing the need
for "shotgun weddings." These changes, along with the movement of women into
the workforce, enabled and encouraged people to marry at later ages. With
married couples putting off parenthood, early divorce had fewer consequences
for children. That weakened the taboo against divorce. Since young couples
were putting off children, the next step was to dispense with marriage and
cohabit until children were desired. Americans have lived through this
transformation. The Swedes have simply drawn the final conclusion: If we've
come so far without marriage, why marry at all? Our love is what matters,
not a piece of paper. Why should children change that?
Two things prompted the Swedes to take this extra step--the welfare state
and cultural attitudes. No Western economy has a higher percentage of public
employees, public expenditures--or higher tax rates--than Sweden. The
massive Swedish welfare state has largely displaced the family as provider.
By guaranteeing jobs and income to every citizen (even children), the
welfare state renders each individual independent. It's easier to divorce
your spouse when the state will support you instead.
The taxes necessary to support the welfare state have had an enormous impact
on the family. With taxes so high, women must work. This reduces the time
available for child rearing, thus encouraging the expansion of a day-care
system that takes a large part in raising nearly all Swedish children over
age one. Here is at least a partial realization of Simone de Beauvoir's
dream of an enforced androgyny that pushes women from the home by turning
children over to the state.
Yet the Swedish welfare state may encourage traditionalism in one respect.
The lone teen pregnancies common in the British and American underclass are
rare in Sweden, which has no underclass to speak of. Even when Swedish
couples bear a child out of wedlock, they tend to reside together when the
child is born. Strong state enforcement of child support is another factor
discouraging single motherhood by teens. Whatever the causes, the
discouragement of lone motherhood is a short-term effect. Ultimately,
mothers and fathers can get along financially alone. So children born out of
wedlock are raised, initially, by two cohabiting parents, many of whom later
There are also cultural-ideological causes of Swedish family decline. Even
more than in the United States, radical feminist and socialist ideas pervade
the universities and the media. Many Scandinavian social scientists see
marriage as a barrier to full equality between the sexes, and would not be
sorry to see marriage replaced by unmarried cohabitation. A related
cultural-ideological agent of marital decline is secularism. Sweden is
probably the most secular country in the world. Secular social scientists
(most of them quite radical) have largely replaced clerics as arbiters of
public morality. Swedes themselves link the decline of marriage to
secularism. And many studies confirm that, throughout the West, religiosity
is associated with institutionally strong marriage, while heightened
secularism is correlated with a weakening of marriage. Scholars have long
suggested that the relatively thin Christianization of the Nordic countries
explains a lot about why the decline of marriage in Scandinavia is a decade
ahead of the rest of the West.
Are Scandinavians concerned about rising out-of-wedlock births, the decline
of marriage, and ever-rising rates of family dissolution? No, and yes. For
over 15 years, an American outsider, Rutgers University sociologist David
Popenoe, has played Cassandra on these issues. Popenoe's 1988 book,
"Disturbing the Nest," is still the definitive treatment of Scandinavian
family change and its meaning for the Western world. Popenoe is no
toe-the-line conservative. He has praise for the Swedish welfare state, and
criticizes American opposition to some child welfare programs. Yet Popenoe
has documented the slow motion collapse of the Swedish family, and
emphasized the link between Swedish family decline and welfare policy.
For years, Popenoe's was a lone voice. Yet by the end of the nineties, the
problem was too obvious to ignore. In 2000, Danish sociologist Mai Heide
Ottosen published a study, "Samboskab, Aegteskab og Foraeldrebrud"
("Cohabitation, Marriage and Parental Breakup"), which confirmed the
increased risk of family dissolution to children of unmarried parents, and
gently chided Scandinavian social scientists for ignoring the "quiet
revolution" of out-of-wedlock parenting.
Despite the reluctance of Scandinavian social scientists to study the
consequences of family dissolution for children, we do have an excellent
study that followed the life experiences of all children born in Stockholm
in 1953. (Not coincidentally, the research was conducted by a British
scholar, Duncan W.G. Timms.) That study found that regardless of income or
social status, parental breakup had negative effects on children's mental
health. Boys living with single, separated, or divorced mothers had
particularly high rates of impairment in adolescence. An important 2003
study by Gunilla Ringbäck Weitoft, et al. found that children of single
parents in Sweden have more than double the rates of mortality, severe
morbidity, and injury of children in two parent households. This held true
after controlling for a wide range of demographic and socioeconomic
THE DECLINE OF MARRIAGE and the rise of unstable cohabitation and
out-of-wedlock childbirth are not confined to Scandinavia. The Scandinavian
welfare state aggravates these problems. Yet none of the forces weakening
marriage there are unique to the region. Contraception, abortion, women in
the workforce, spreading secularism, ascendant individualism, and a
substantial welfare state are found in every Western country. That is why
the Nordic pattern is spreading.
Yet the pattern is spreading unevenly. And scholars agree that cultural
tradition plays a central role in determining whether a given country moves
toward the Nordic family system. Religion is a key variable. A 2002 study by
the Max Planck Institute, for example, concluded that countries with the
lowest rates of family dissolution and out-of-wedlock births are "strongly
dominated by the Catholic confession." The same study found that in
countries with high levels of family dissolution, religion in general, and
Catholicism in particular, had little influence.
British demographer Kathleen Kiernan, the acknowledged authority on the
spread of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births across Europe, divides the
continent into three zones. The Nordic countries are the leaders in
cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births. They are followed by a middle group
that includes the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, and Germany. Until
recently, France was a member of this middle group, but France's rising
out-of-wedlock birthrate has moved it into the Nordic category. North
American rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth put the United
States and Canada into this middle group. Most resistant to cohabitation,
family dissolution, and out-of-wedlock births are the southern European
countries of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece, and, until recently,
Switzerland and Ireland. (Ireland's rising out-of-wedlock birthrate has just
pushed it into the middle group.)
These three groupings closely track the movement for gay marriage. In the
early nineties, gay marriage came to the Nordic countries, where the
out-of-wedlock birthrate was already high. Ten years later, out-of-wedlock
birth rates have risen significantly in the middle group of nations. Not
coincidentally, nearly every country in that middle group has recently
either legalized some form of gay marriage, or is seriously considering
doing so. Only in the group with low out-of-wedlock birthrates has the gay
marriage movement achieved relatively little success.
This suggests that gay marriage is both an effect and a cause of the
increasing separation between marriage and parenthood. As rising
out-of-wedlock birthrates disassociate heterosexual marriage from parenting,
gay marriage becomes conceivable. If marriage is only about a relationship
between two people, and is not intrinsically connected to parenthood, why
shouldn't same-sex couples be allowed to marry? It follows that once
marriage is redefined to accommodate same-sex couples, that change cannot
help but lock in and reinforce the very cultural separation between marriage
and parenthood that makes gay marriage conceivable to begin with.
We see this process at work in the radical separation of marriage and
parenthood that swept across Scandinavia in the nineties. If Scandinavian
out-of-wedlock birthrates had not already been high in the late eighties,
gay marriage would have been far more difficult to imagine. More than a
decade into post-gay marriage Scandinavia, out-of-wedlock birthrates have
passed 50 percent, and the effective end of marriage as a protective shield
for children has become thinkable. Gay marriage hasn't blocked the
separation of marriage and parenthood; it has advanced it.
WE SEE THIS most clearly in Norway. In 1989, a couple of years after Sweden
broke ground by offering gay couples the first domestic partnership package
in Europe, Denmark legalized de facto gay marriage. This kicked off a debate
in Norway (traditionally more conservative than either Sweden or Denmark), w
hich legalized de facto gay marriage in 1993. (Sweden expanded its benefits
packages into de facto gay marriage in 1994.) In liberal Denmark, where
out-of-wedlock birthrates were already very high, the public favored
same-sex marriage. But in Norway, where the out-of-wedlock birthrate was
lower--and religion traditionally stronger--gay marriage was imposed,
against the public will, by the political elite.
Norway's gay marriage debate, which ran most intensely from 1991 through
1993, was a culture-shifting event. And once enacted, gay marriage had a
decidedly unconservative impact on Norway's cultural contests, weakening
marriage's defenders, and placing a weapon in the hands of those who sought
to replace marriage with cohabitation. Since its adoption, gay marriage has
brought division and decline to Norway's Lutheran Church. Meanwhile,
Norway's fast-rising out-of-wedlock birthrate has shot past Denmark's.
Particularly in Norway--once relatively conservative--gay marriage has
undermined marriage's institutional standing for everyone.
Norway's Lutheran state church has been riven by conflict in the decade
since the approval of de facto gay marriage, with the ordination of
registered partners the most divisive issue. The church's agonies have been
intensively covered in the Norwegian media, which have taken every
opportunity to paint the church as hidebound and divided. The nineties began
with conservative churchmen control. By the end of the decade, liberals had
seized the reins.
While the most public disputes of the nineties were over homosexuality,
Norway's Lutheran church was also divided over the question of heterosexual
cohabitation. Asked directly, liberal and conservative clerics alike voice a
preference for marriage over cohabitation--especially for couples with
children. In practice, however, conservative churchmen speak out against the
trend toward unmarried cohabitation and childbirth, while liberals
This division over heterosexual cohabitation broke into the open in 2000, at
the height of the church's split over gay partnerships, when Prince Haakon,
heir to Norway's throne, began to live with his lover, a single mother. From
the start of the prince's controversial relationship to its eventual
culmination in marriage, the future head of the Norwegian state church
received tokens of public support or understanding from the very same
bishops who were leading the fight to permit the ordination of homosexual
So rather than strengthening Norwegian marriage against the rise of
cohabitation and out-of-wedlock birth, same-sex marriage had the opposite
effect. Gay marriage lessened the church's authority by splitting it into
warring factions and providing the secular media with occasions to mock and
expose divisions. Gay marriage also elevated the church's openly rebellious
minority liberal faction to national visibility, allowing Norwegians to feel
that their proclivity for unmarried parenthood, if not fully approved by the
church, was at least not strongly condemned. If the "conservative case" for
gay marriage had been valid, clergy who were supportive of gay marriage
would Spedale's have taken a strong public stand against unmarried
heterosexual parenthood. This didn't happen. It was the conservative clergy
who criticized the prince, while the liberal supporters of gay marriage
tolerated his decisions. The message was not lost on ordinary Norwegians,
who continued their flight to unmarried parenthood.
Gay marriage is both an effect and a reinforcing cause of the separation of
marriage and parenthood. In states like Sweden and Denmark, where
out-of-wedlock birthrates were already very high, and the public favored gay
marriage, gay unions were an effect of earlier changes. Once in place, gay
marriage symbolically ratified the separation of marriage and parenthood.
And once established, gay marriage became one of several factors
contributing to further increases in cohabitation and out-of-wedlock
birthrates, as well as to early divorce. But in Norway, where out-of-wedlock
birthrates were lower, religion stronger, and the public opposed same-sex
unions, gay marriage had an even greater role in precipitating marital
SWEDEN'S POSITION as the world leader in family decline is associated with a
weak clergy, and the prominence of secular and left-leaning social
scientists. In the post-gay marriage nineties, as Norway's once relatively
low out-of-wedlock birthrate was climbing to unprecedented heights, and as
the gay marriage controversy weakened and split the once respected Lutheran
state church, secular social scientists took center stage.
Kari Moxnes, a feminist sociologist specializing in divorce, is one of the
most prominent of Norway's newly emerging group of public social scientists.
As a scholar who sees both marriage and at-home motherhood as inherently
oppressive to women, Moxnes is a proponent of nonmarital cohabitation and
parenthood. In 1993, as the Norwegian legislature was debating gay marriage,
Moxnes published an article, "Det tomme ekteskap" ("Empty Marriage"), in the
influential liberal paper Dagbladet. She argued that Norwegian gay marriage
was a sign of marriage's growing emptiness, not its strength. Although
Moxnes spoke in favor of gay marriage, she treated its creation as a
(welcome) death knell for marriage itself. Moxnes identified
homosexuals--with their experience in forging relationships unencumbered by
children--as social pioneers in the separation of marriage from parenthood.
In recognizing homosexual relationships, Moxnes said, society was ratifying
the division of marriage from parenthood that had spurred the rise of
out-of-wedlock births to begin with.
A frequent public presence, Moxnes enjoyed her big moment in 1999, when she
was embroiled in a dispute with Valgerd Svarstad Haugland, minister of
children and family affairs in Norway's Christian Democrat government.
Moxnes had criticized Christian marriage classes for teaching children the
importance of wedding vows. This brought a sharp public rebuke from
Haugland. Responding to Haugland's criticisms, Moxnes invoked homosexual
families as proof that "relationships" were now more important than
This is not what proponents of the conservative case for gay marriage had in
mind. In Norway, gay marriage has given ammunition to those who wish to put
an end to marriage. And the steady rise of Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate
during the nineties proves that the opponents of marriage are succeeding.
Nor is Kari Moxnes an isolated case.
Months before Moxnes clashed with Haugland, social historian Kari Melby had
a very public quarrel with a leader of the Christian Democratic party over
the conduct of Norway's energy minister, Marit Arnstad. Arnstad had gotten
pregnant in office and had declined to name the father. Melby defended
Arnstad, and publicly challenged the claim that children do best with both a
mother and a father. In making her case, Melby praised gay parenting, along
with voluntary single motherhood, as equally worthy alternatives to the
traditional family. So instead of noting that an expectant mother might want
to follow the example of marriage that even gays were now setting, Melby
invoked homosexual families as proof that a child can do as well with one
parent as two.
Finally, consider a case that made even more news in Norway, that of
handball star Mia Hundvin (yes, handball prowess makes for celebrity in
Norway). Hundvin had been in a registered gay partnership with fellow
handballer Camilla Andersen. These days, however, having publicly announced
her bisexuality, Hundvin is linked with Norwegian snowboarder Terje
Haakonsen. Inspired by her time with Haakonsen's son, Hundvin decided to
have a child. The father of Hundvin's child may well be Haakonsen, but
neither Hundvin nor Haakonsen is saying.
Did Hundvin divorce her registered partner before deciding to become a
single mother by (probably) her new boyfriend? The story in Norway's
premiere paper, Aftenposten, doesn't bother to mention. After noting that
Hundvin and Andersen were registered partners, the paper simply says that
the two women are no longer "romantically involved." Hundvin has only been
with Haakonsen about a year. She obviously decided to become a single mother
without bothering to see whether she and Haakonsen might someday marry. Nor
has Hundvin appeared to consider that her affection for Haakonsen's child
(also apparently born out of wedlock) might better be expressed by marrying
Haakonsen and becoming his son's new mother.
Certainly, you can chalk up more than a little of this saga to celebrity
culture. But celebrity culture is both a product and influencer of the
larger culture that gives rise to it. Clearly, the idea of parenthood here
has been radically individualized, and utterly detached from marriage.
Registered partnerships have reinforced existing trends. The press treats
gay partnerships more as relationships than as marriages. The symbolic
message of registered partnerships--for social scientists, handball players,
and bishops alike--has been that most any nontraditional family is just
fine. Gay marriage has served to validate the belief that individual choice
trumps family form.
The Scandinavian experience rebuts the so-called conservative case for gay
marriage in more than one way. Noteworthy, too, is the lack of a movement
toward marriage and monogamy among gays. Take-up rates on gay marriage are
exceedingly small. Yale's William Eskridge acknowledged this when he
reported in 2000 that 2,372 couples had registered after nine years of the
Danish law, 674 after four years of the Norwegian law, and 749 after four
years of the Swedish law.
Danish social theorist Henning Bech and Norwegian sociologist Rune Halvorsen
offer excellent accounts of the gay marriage debates in Denmark and Norway.
Despite the regnant social liberalism in these countries, proposals to
recognize gay unions generated tremendous controversy, and have reshaped the
meaning of marriage in the years since. Both Bech and Halvorsen stress that
the conservative case for gay marriage, while put forward by a few, was
rejected by many in the gay community. Bech, perhaps Scandinavia's most
prominent gay thinker, dismisses as an "implausible" claim the idea that gay
marriage promotes monogamy. He treats the "conservative case" as something
that served chiefly tactical purposes during a difficult political debate.
According to Halvorsen, many of Norway's gays imposed self-censorship during
the marriage debate, so as to hide their opposition to marriage itself. The
goal of the gay marriage movements in both Norway and Denmark, say Halvorsen
and Bech, was not marriage but social approval for homosexuality. Halvorsen
suggests that the low numbers of registered gay couples may be understood as
a collective protest against the expectations (presumably, monogamy)
embodied in marriage.
SINCE LIBERALIZING DIVORCE in the first decades of the twentieth century,
the Nordic countries have been the leading edge of marital change. Drawing
on the Swedish experience, Kathleen Kiernan, the British demographer, uses a
four-stage model by which to gauge a country's movement toward Swedish
levels of out-of-wedlock births.
In stage one, cohabitation is seen as a deviant or avant-garde practice, and
the vast majority of the population produces children within marriage. Italy
is at this first stage. In the second stage, cohabitation serves as a
testing period before marriage, and is generally a childless phase.
Bracketing the problem of underclass single parenthood, America is largely
at this second stage. In stage three, cohabitation becomes increasingly
acceptable, and parenting is no longer automatically associated with
marriage. Norway was at this third stage, but with recent demographic and
legal changes has entered stage four. In the fourth stage (Sweden and
Denmark), marriage and cohabitation become practically indistinguishable,
with many, perhaps even most, children born and raised outside of marriage.
According to Kiernan, these stages may vary in duration, yet once a country
has reached a stage, return to an earlier phase is unlikely. (She offers no
examples of stage reversal.) Yet once a stage has been reached, earlier
The forces pushing nations toward the Nordic model are almost universal.
True, by preserving legal distinctions between marriage and cohabitation,
reining in the welfare state, and preserving at least some traditional
values, a given country might forestall or prevent the normalization of
nonmarital parenthood. Yet every Western country is susceptible to the pull
of the Nordic model. Nor does Catholicism guarantee immunity. Ireland,
perhaps because of its geographic, linguistic, and cultural proximity to
England, is now suffering from out-of-wedlock birthrates far in excess of
the rest of Catholic Europe. Without deeming a shift inevitable, Kiernan
openly wonders how long America can resist the pull of stages three and
Although Sweden leads the world in family decline, the United States is
runner-up. Swedes marry less, and bear more children out of wedlock, than
any other industrialized nation. But Americans lead the world in single
parenthood and divorce. If we bracket the crisis of single parenthood among
African-Americans, the picture is somewhat different. Yet even among
non-Hispanic whites, the American divorce rate is extremely high by world
The American mix of family traditionalism and family instability is unusual.
In comparison to Europe, Americans are more religious and more likely to
turn to the family than the state for a wide array of needs--from child
care, to financial support, to care for the elderly. Yet America's
individualism cuts two ways. Our cultural libertarianism protects the family
as a bulwark against the state, yet it also breaks individuals loose from
the family. The danger we face is a combination of America's divorce rate
with unstable, Scandinavian-style out-of-wedlock parenthood. With a growing
tendency for cohabiting couples to have children outside of marriage,
America is headed in that direction.
Young Americans are more likely to favor gay marriage than their elders.
That oft-noted fact is directly related to another. Less than half of
America's twentysomethings consider it wrong to bear children outside
marriage. There is a growing tendency for even middle class cohabiting
couples to have children without marrying.
Nonetheless, although cohabiting parenthood is growing in America, levels
here are still far short of those in Europe. America's situation is not
unlike Norway's in the early nineties, with religiosity relatively strong,
the out-of-wedlock birthrate still relatively low (yet rising), and the
public opposed to gay marriage. If, as in Norway, gay marriage were imposed
here by a socially liberal cultural elite, it would likely speed us on the
way toward the classic Nordic pattern of less frequent marriage, more
frequent out-of-wedlock birth, and skyrocketing family dissolution.
In the American context, this would be a disaster. Beyond raising rates of
middle class family dissolution, a further separation of marriage from
parenthood would reverse the healthy turn away from single-parenting that we
have begun to see since welfare reform. And cross-class family decline would
bring intense pressure for a new expansion of the American welfare state.
All this is happening in Britain. With the Nordic pattern's spread across
Europe, Britain's out-of-wedlock birthrate has risen to 40 percent. Most of
that increase is among cohabiting couples. Yet a significant number of
out-of-wedlock births in Britain are to lone teenage mothers. This a
function of Britain's class divisions. Remember that although the
Scandinavian welfare state encourages family dissolution in the long term,
in the short term, Scandinavian parents giving birth out of wedlock tend to
stay together. But given the presence of a substantial underclass in
Britain, the spread of Nordic cohabitation there has sent lone teen
parenting rates way up. As Britain's rates of single parenting and family
dissolution have grown, so has pressure to expand the welfare state to
compensate for economic help that families can no longer provide. But of
course, an expansion of the welfare state would only lock the weakening of
Britain's family system into place.
If America is to avoid being forced into a similar choice, we'll have to
resist the separation of marriage from parenthood. Yet even now we are being
pushed in the Scandinavian direction. Stimulated by rising rates of
unmarried parenthood, the influential American Law Institute (ALI) has
proposed a series of legal reforms ("Principles of Family Dissolution")
designed to equalize marriage and cohabitation. Adoption of the ALI
principles would be a giant step toward the Scandinavian system.
AMERICANS take it for granted that, despite its recent troubles, marriage
will always exist. This is a mistake. Marriage is disappearing in
Scandinavia, and the forces undermining it there are active throughout the
West. Perhaps the most disturbing sign for the future is the collapse of the
Scandinavian tendency to marry after the second child. At the start of the
nineties, 60 percent of unmarried Norwegian parents who lived together had
only one child. By 2001, 56 percent of unmarried, cohabiting parents in
Norway had two or more children. This suggests that someday, Scandinavian
parents might simply stop getting married altogether, no matter how many
children they have.
The death of marriage is not inevitable. In a given country, public policy
decisions and cultural values could slow, and perhaps halt, the process of
marital decline. Nor are we faced with an all-or-nothing choice between the
marital system of, say, the 1950s and marriage's disappearance. Kiernan's
model posits stopping points. So repealing no-fault divorce, or even
eliminating premarital cohabitation, are not what's at issue. With no-fault
divorce, Americans traded away some of the marital stability that protects
children to gain more freedom for adults. Yet we can accept that trade-off,
while still drawing a line against descent into a Nordic-style system. And
cohabitation as a premarital testing phase is not the same as unmarried
parenting. Potentially, a line between the two can hold.
Developments in the last half-century have surely weakened the links between
American marriage and parenthood. Yet to a remarkable degree, Americans
still take it for granted that parents should marry. Scandinavia shocks us.
Still, who can deny that gay marriage will accustom us to a more
Scandinavian-style separation of marriage and parenthood? And with our
underclass, the social pathologies this produces in America are bound to be
more severe than they already are in wealthy and socially homogeneous
All of these considerations suggest that the gay marriage debate in America
is too important to duck. Kiernan maintains that as societies progressively
detach marriage from parenthood, stage reversal is impossible. That makes
sense. The association between marriage and parenthood is partly a mystique.
Disenchanted mystiques cannot be restored on demand.
What about a patchwork in which some American states have gay marriage while
others do not? A state-by-state patchwork would practically guarantee a
shift toward the Nordic family system. Movies and television, which do not
respect state borders, would embrace gay marriage. The cultural effects
would be national.
What about Vermont-style civil unions? Would that be a workable compromise?
Clearly not. Scandinavian registered partnerships are Vermont-style civil
unions. They are not called marriage, yet resemble marriage in almost every
other respect. The key differences are that registered partnerships do not
permit adoption or artificial insemination, and cannot be celebrated in
state-affiliated churches. These limitations are gradually being repealed.
The lesson of the Scandinavian experience is that even de facto same-sex
marriage undermines marriage.
The Scandinavian example also proves that gay marriage is not interracial
marriage in a new guise. The miscegenation analogy was never convincing.
There are plenty of reasons to think that, in contrast to race, sexual
orientation will have profound effects on marriage. But with Scandinavia, we
are well beyond the realm of even educated speculation. The post-gay
marriage changes in the Scandinavian family are significant. This is not
like the fantasy about interracial birth defects. There is a serious
scholarly debate about the spread of the Nordic family pattern. Since gay
marriage is a part of that pattern, it needs to be part of that debate.
Conservative advocates of gay marriage want to test it in a few states. The
implication is that, should the experiment go bad, we can call it off. Yet
the effects, even in a few American states, will be neither containable nor
revocable. It took about 15 years after the change hit Sweden and Denmark
for Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate to begin to move from "European" to
"Nordic" levels. It took another 15 years (and the advent of gay marriage)
for Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate to shoot past even Denmark's. By the
time we see the effects of gay marriage in America, it will be too late to
do anything about it. Yet we needn't wait that long. In effect, Scandinavia
has run our experiment for us. The results are in.
Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His "Beyond
Gay Marriage" appeared in our August 4, 2003, issue.
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Be pro-active, tell the government what you think.
Find out who your member of parliament is
By using your postal code:
Find contact information for all MPs at: