Avoidance Strategy

Published October 30, 2006

National Review Online

On multiple occasions, I’ve rebutted claims by William Eskridge and Darren Spedale that European marriage is flourishing under the impact of same-sex unions. (See especially No Nordic Bliss.)

Now Spedale and Eskridge have repeated their basic line in an October 27 Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “The Hitch,” yet have done so with a telling omission. Remarkably, Spedale and Eskridge have nothing whatever to say about marriage in the Netherlands, the country that has had formal same-sex marriage longer than any other place in the world. Spedale and Eskridge treat Scandinavian registered partnerships as the only case worth talking about, supposedly because we’ve had full gay marriage in the Netherlands for only five years. Yet we’ve had registered partnerships in the Netherlands for nearly a decade, and full gay marriage for about half that time. It’s absurd to rule a decade’s worth of data from the Netherlands out of court, especially when much of that time includes the world’s first and longest experiment in formal same-sex marriage. This straining to completely omit data from the Netherlands is the surest sign that Spedale and Eskridge are on shaky ground.

Given the fact that marriage has deteriorated more rapidly in the Netherlands than in any West European country over the last decade, the reluctance of Spedale and Eskridge to talk about the Dutch case makes sense. Yet they do treat the issue in their book. I’ve discussed the Netherlands extensively (see, for example, Standing Out), arguing that all signs point to same-sex unions as a key factor in the decline of Dutch marriage. In Smoking Gun, I offered a detailed rebuttal of Eskridge and Spedale’s treatment of The Netherlands. And I’ve had a direct exchange with the authors on this issue. (See my Corner post, Eskridge-Spedale.) Given all that, I think it’s telling that Spedale and Eskridge have now decided to avoid talking about the Netherlands altogether.

Another remarkable omission in the Spedale-Eskridge op-ed comes on the subject of multiple-partner marriage. In their book, Eskridge and Spedale flatly deny that anyone in Scandinavia has called for multi-partner marriage. Yet, as I showed in Fanatical Swedish Feminists there has already been a move to abolish marriage in Sweden and replace it with a “gender neutral” partnership system that would recognize multiple unions. (See, for example, “Feminists Call for Abolition of Marriage” from Sweden’s English-language news source, The Local.) It’s remarkable that Spedale and Eskridge would repeat their claims about the absence of such calls, when evidence to the contrary so clearly exists.

As for the rest of their case, Spedale and Eskridge continue to repeat the same statistical sound bites about marriage rates, without answering repeated criticisms. From the start, I’ve noted that Scandinavian marriage statistics are notoriously misleading. (See The End of Marriage in Scandinavia.) Scandinavian marriage rates are inflated by remarriage among the large number of divorced, and also by a phenomenon called “catching up,” in which older couples who have long delayed marriage (even after having had a child out of wedlock) eventually get married (if they haven’t broken up first, which unmarried parents are far more likely to do). “Catching up” by older Scandinavian couples means that Scandinavian marriage rates tend to statistically disguise the growth of unmarried parenthood in the younger generation. This is particularly true in Denmark, where recent changes in family-leave policy have caused an unusual spike in the “catching up” phenomenon. Yet Spedale and Eskridge continue to repeat seemingly rosy marriage-rate statistics without responding to criticisms about what they actually mean.

Spedale and Eskridge also note that rates of unmarried parenthood are increasing less swiftly now in Scandinavia. But as I’ve said on many occasions, that’s like comparing apples and oranges. The big early spikes in out-of-wedlock birthrates came when Scandinavians parents started treating the birth of the first child as a test of their relationship. Instead of marrying to become a parent, Scandinavians were becoming parents to see if they ought to get married. The post-same-sex partnership shifts in unmarried parenthood are slower, but they’re also far more dangerous, because they reflect a different and more radical phenomenon. Increasingly, Scandinavian parents have stopped getting married at all, even after two or three children. And this more radical abandonment of marriage is happening most visibly in the socially liberal, gay-marriage-friendly northern districts of Norway, in contrast to the socially conservative south. So since the advent of same-sex unions, Scandinavian marriage has weakened considerably. Whereas the initial spike in Scandinavian out-of-wedlock births reflected parents treating their first-born child as a test of whether to get married, the somewhat slower, yet far more dangerous continued rise in out-of-wedlock birthrates, especially in Sweden and Norway, indicates that many Scandinavian parents are now dispensing with marriage entirely.

But if you want to see a major spike in the out-of-wedlock birthrate after the institution of same-sex unions, go to the Netherlands, where we see a remarkably clear “before and after” case of marital decline following the advent of same-sex unions. No doubt this is why Spedale and Eskridge do not want to talk about the Netherlands. I’ve made all these points about both Scandinavia and the Netherlands repeatedly, but Spedale and Eskridge just go on repeating their sound bites.

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

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