Did gay marriage destroy marriage in Scandinavia?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 20 2004 4:28 PM

Prenuptial Jitters

Did gay marriage destroy heterosexual marriage in Scandinavia?

(Continued from Page 1)

Cohabitation rates tell a similar story. In Denmark, from 1980 to 1989, the number of unmarried, cohabiting couples with children rose by 70 percent, but the same figure rose by only 28 percent from 1989 to 2000—the decade after Denmark introduced its partner-registration laws—and then stopped rising. From 2000 to 2004, the number has increased by a barely perceptible 0.3 percent. The fact that rates of cohabitation and nonmarital births either slowed down or completely stopped rising after the passage of partnership laws shows that the laws had no effect on heterosexual behavior.

Furthermore, the change in nonmarital births was exactly the same in countries with partnership laws as it was in countries without. The eight countries that recognized registered partners at some point in the decade from 1989 to 2000 saw an increase in the average nonmarital birth rate from 36 percent in 1991 to 44 percent in 2000, an eight percentage point increase. Among the EU countries that didn't recognize partners (plus Switzerland), the average rate of nonmarital births rose from 15 percent to 23 percent—also an eight-point increase.

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No matter how you slice the demographic data, rates of nonmarital births and cohabitation do not increase as a result of the passage of laws that give same-sex partners the right to registered partnership. To put it simply: Giving gay couples rights does not inexplicably cause heterosexuals to flee marriage, as Kurtz would have us believe. Looking at the long-term statistical trends, it seems clear that the changes in heterosexuals' marriage and parenting decisions would have occurred anyway, even in the absence of gay marriage.

And all the conservative hand-wringing seems especially unnecessary when you consider the various incentives that encourage American heterosexual couples to marry. By marrying, U.S. couples obtain health-insurance coverage, pensions, and Social Security survivor benefits. Plus, in the United States we are required by law to be financially responsible for our spouses in bad times, since we don't have Scandinavian-style welfare programs to fall back on.

In addition, American society already wrestles with the social tensions that Kurtz claims have occurred as a result of gay marriage in Scandinavia: deepening divisions over gay issues in churches, the increasing acceptance of lesbian and gay relationships in the media, and the occasional radical voice arguing for the abolition of marriage. Yet heterosexual couples keep getting married—more than 2 million of them every year.

Concerns about the impact of gay marriage on heterosexual behavior are not unique to the United States, of course. European countries that recognize same-sex couples initially had their worriers, too. Over time, however, it became clear that civilization and family life would survive the recognition of gay couples' rights. Even the conservative governments that came into power have not tried to repeal rights for gay couples in France and the Netherlands.

Both demographic data and common sense show that the dire predictions of Dobson and Kurtz are just cultural prenuptial jitters. Now that gay and lesbian couples are marrying in Massachusetts, we'll have a home-grown social experiment that will undoubtedly compare to that of Europe: Letting gay couples say "I do" does not lead to heterosexuals saying "I don't."

M. V. Lee Badgett is an associate professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the research director of the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies. She is the author ofMoney, Myths, and Change: The Economic Lives of Lesbians and Gay Men.

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