The legalization of same-sex marriage does not of itself cause some cosmic shift in people's attitudes about marriage. The day after the ink dries on legislation or a judicial ruling, divorce lawyers' phones won't ring off the hook and unmarried couples won't give birth to vast broods. However, the legalization of same-sex marriage is a definitive marker the bottom line of how a society defines marriage and its purposes.
Therefore, it necessarily arrives as part of a progression, not as a bolt from the cultural blue. This is not to say that the "yes" vote doesn't bring a significant shift; accepting marriages between two men or two women establishes a manifest illustration that, whatever the essence of marriage is, it doesn't follow from the unique complement of man and woman.
Beyond the intangibles of gender difference, couples of opposite sex can uniquely be the biological parents of shared children. Tying those parents to those children is a crucial social objective. And to the degree to which denial of marriage's role in this objective is codified into law establishing rights and privileges for others it removes marriage as a mechanism to achieve it.
This biological and psychological reality holds no matter the culture in question. Therefore, it would be a waste of time to argue with Andrew Sullivan's assertion that "the legal and cultural norms around coupling and family are very, very different in Scandinavia than in the U.S." Even letting slide his perennial attempts to use that region as a model and example in his advocacy for SSM in the United States, one can suggest that damage to the institution of marriage would only be more profoundly harmful on our shores, where (Sullivan admits) "civil marriage remains... the privileged organizing unit for coupling and rearing children."
However, Sullivan cannot be ignored in his attempts to argue that one area of difference is that Scandinavian citizens can achieve the familial benefits of marriage without entering into the institution per se. He quotes from correspondence with researcher Darren Spedale:
Couples in Scandinavia who have chosen to spend their lives together without a marriage certificate often plan for an otherwise traditional family structure, including children. Thus, the 'out-of-wedlock births' that Kurtz refers to in Scandinavia are children who are wanted by their parents... Probably the most telling proof of this is the incredibly low number of Scandinavian children available for adoption each year. In Denmark, for example, only about 25 Danish children are available for adoption each year in the entire country. ... Kurtz's claim that 'rising rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births stand as proxy for rising rates of family dissolution' is therefore misleading.
Perhaps I'm not alone in finding it suspicious that Spedale seeks to replace cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births with adoption as a bellwether of family dissolution. Low numbers of children put up for adoption are to be expected in societies in which parents who would be willing to remove their children from their lives can kill them before they're born. As I highlighted in a post with extensive graphs on these matters, between approximately 11% (Netherlands) and 26% (Sweden) of all children conceived in the region were aborted in 2000. This was up from rates in the same bookend countries of approximately 2% and 16% in 1970.
More to the point, however, Spedale presumes too much in implying that "family dissolution" requires that all parties, including the children, go their separate ways:
The only thing that such statistics demonstrate is a continuing shift in the Scandinavian countries to permanent relationships of families in a traditional family structure (i.e., with children), who don't hold a marriage license. Kurtz fails to prove any connection whatsoever between unmarried couples and family dissolution.
Certainly, a problem faces Mr. Kurtz in that cohabiting families are a bit more difficult to track. For one thing, without the expectation that parents will be married, divorce rates and statistics about whether children live with their own parents cannot easily be combined. Examining statistics of Danish childrens' households, it is heartening that 74.8% of children still lived with their own mothers and fathers in 2001, even if that was down from 75.9% in 1991. The picture begins to tint, however, when one notes that the number of children living with a single mother was up 11% over that period.
Raw numbers of children are tricky for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they can go up in every category, leaving one to compare rates of increase for small and large numbers alike. The number of children living with their own parents, for example, was up 5%, or 41,569 kids, while the number of children living with their recoupled mothers was up 18%, or 13,203 kids. All in all, those 41,569 additional children living with their own parents compares with 28,763 additional children whose original families dissolved.
Secondly, raw numbers of children are skewed by the tendency of traditional families to be larger. To understand this dynamic, consider the data by household type, which is a bit more worrying. In 2001, for homes with one child, unmarried parents (combining all registered partnerships, "consensual unions," and cohabiting couples) amounted to 40.6% the number of married households, while single parent households (either mother or father) amounted to 49.2% of the number of married households. So the total one-child households that didn't involve marriage was 89.8% the size of the total households that did. For homes with two children, the unmarried total was 23.7% the size of married, and the single parent total was 19.2% meaning that marriage-less households were 42.9% the total for married. For homes with three or more children, the numbers are 16.4% and 13.9%, generating a total no-marriage to marriage ratio of 30.3%.
For a visual sense of what this means, consider the following graphic. The solid bars are the actual numbers in each category for 2001.
Note not only that there are more married two-child households than one-child, but also that the distance increases as described above. The outlined boxes give some historical perspective, as the relevant numbers for 1991. It isn't clear that the trend is of families with children remaining the same, only dispensing with the marital formality, as Spedale suggests. If that were the case, losses in the married category would be made up more directly in the unmarried couple category.
Although there may have been some degree of this in the '90s, comparing the percentage change of the total numbers suggests that the arrangement could be culturally and individually fleeting. Larger families are likely to be older, with a cultural view formed during an earlier period, meaning that the parents absorbed the meaning of marriage, even if they don't have a license. Moreover, larger unmarried families would seem likely to include more reshuffled children, because (for one thing) large nuclear families began earlier in the trend away from marriage.
In the following figure, the solid bars represent the difference that you see in the first figure the change from 1991 to 2001.
Looking just at the solid columns, you can see that marriage is decreasing among one-child households, but leveling off then increasing for additional children. However, the other family types are increasing at a faster rate. Most disturbing of all are the outlined boxes, which show the percentage change in total households from 1991 to 2004. Single-parent households are by far the most rapidly expanding group for families with multiple children.
What it looks like to me is that there's a reason that it's widely accepted among sociologists that cohabitation isn't stable. Those who are serious will get married; those who are not will separate. And unfortunately, the rate of the latter is increasing more than the rate of the former. Combined with the fact that individual children are ever-more-likely to live without both of their biological parents, and Sullivan would seem to be ill advised to count on the "social conservatism" of Scandinavians. This is especially true when it is considered that, as I showed in the context of births and abortions, Denmark is the most-improving nation in the region.
Sullivan shifts his discussion to Norway (link in original):
It's also true that in the period Kurtz is concerned about the number of marriages in Norway increased by almost 25 percent from 20,161 in 1993 to 26,425 in 1999. How does that square with the "death of marriage"?
Let's get fairness out of the way first: for some reason, Sullivan added the data for marriages abroad to a total that already included them, so the actual numbers are 18,741 and 23,456, which represents an increase of just over 25%. I've no reason to quibble with that, as I believe there's a very real chance that the public battle over same-sex marriage gives the whole institution a temporary boost, because people are considering what marriage means, overall and for themselves. What's peculiar is that Sullivan (or somebody) had to dig to get the table that ends at 1999, and I'm not sure why he believes that Kurtz is only "concerned about" that period.
The latest table goes all the way to 2002, when there were 24,069 marriages. I'm not sufficiently familiar with what's going on in that country to know why it's so, but the marriage numbers have been volatile this decade, up to 25,356 in 2000 and down to 22,967 in 2001. That blip was in large part due to fluctuations in the number of church weddings, which might be consistent with my boost hypothesis. However, the 2002 increase was more evenly divided between religious and civil. Whatever the case, one can discern how susceptible the relatively tiny totals are to distortion of trends by the fact that one could pick five-year gaps during which marriages increased by 25% or by 0%.
One more bit of numerical flimflammery that's worth noting involves this from Spedale:
This solemn approach towards, and respect for, entering into the institution of marriage also explains why divorce rates among gay and lesbian couples is so much lower than rates of divorce among their heterosexual counterparts.
Sullivan emphasizes the point, writing, "Yes, you read that right." But who knows what we're reading; Spedale offers no numbers, let alone a source for numbers. So let's use the numbers that Sullivan's Norway source provides. Although there's no corresponding table, the main report about divorces and separation notes that there were 44 same-sex divorces and 77 same-sex separations in 2002. Since I wasn't able to find any historical data, let's be generous and assume that 2002 was the first year during which Norwegian same-sex couples divorced. Thus, we'll compare the 44 divorces to the 1,412 same-sex partnerships that had been contracted in the previous decade.
This source calculates the heterosexual "divorce rate" per 1,000 married women. In Norway for 2002, it was 11.9. Calculating the per-1,000 number for same-sex divorces, we get 31.2, which is two-and-a-half times the divorce rate of heterosexual marriages. And, remember, this assumes that there had never been a same-sex divorce in Norway before that year. If 44 same-sex couples had divorced every year for the past ten, there would only have been 972 of them by that point, and their divorce rate would be 45.3.
But more than all of the number games, what bothers me about Sullivan's latest spin is this:
Between 1994 and 1999, there were a total of five registered same-sex partnerships in the county Kurtz cites. Kurtz wants to explain the shift in that county's heterosexual conduct by citing a mere ten people?
Variations of this statement have been made and rebutted so many times over the past year that I'm beginning to think those who make it don't really listen for an answer. It isn't the actual number of same-sex marriages that creates an issue; those who say it hurts my marriage not at all if two homosexuals marry are correct. At the same time, those 10 folks in that county, even the 1,412 folks in all of Norway, didn't change the law all on their own. What preceded their marriages was a final push of the socially understood meaning and purpose of marriage to the point at which gender became irrelevant. The effects will take decades to play out, and none yet can claim definitive conclusions. But frankly, the numbers don't give much reason for optimism certainly not enough to emulate the policy here across the pond.
Apparently, I wasn't alone in thinking Spedale's appeal to low adoption rates to be suspicious. Here's Eve Tushnet:
Low rates of babies placed for adoption = strong family culture??? Has Spedale ever spent any time in an American inner city? Many, many American communities have exceptionally low marriage rates and a strong stigma against placing your baby for adoption. Those are the families of "fatherless America," not models of marriageless bliss.
Sullivan has linked to Spedale's full response to Kurtz. To cut to the chase, I'm not impressed. The great bulk of its content is advocacy fluff (e.g., about "respect" and "tolerance"), a strange belief that SSM must be working because the politicians would have modified or removed it otherwise, and snide remarks about how Spedale actually conducted dozens of interviews, whereas Kurtz mostly studied numbers covering entire populations.
In fact, numbers are sparse and selectively applied in Spedale's lengthy essay. We learn that, in 1996, "before the registered partnership law was introduced, approximately 50% of heterosexual couples in Iceland with children were already living together as permanent partners without a marriage certificate." We get the adoption number cited above. And then we get this:
In 1990, at the outset of the partnership law's existence, there were 6.1 heterosexual marriages per 1,000 persons in Denmark. By the mid-1990's (1996), that number had climbed to 6.8 marriages per 1,000 population, or an increase of just over 10% from 1990.
Furthermore, the number of heterosexual divorces in 1990 stood at 2.7 per 1,000 population. By the mid-1990's, it was at 2.4 per 1,000, or an approximate 12% decrease in the number of divorces.
What's peculiar, here, is that Spedale opens his essay proclaiming that "15 years after the first of these countries (Denmark) legalized gay marriage in the form of registered partnerships, the results are in." He ends suggesting that this "15-year history with gay marriage" allows us to "close the door on Stanley Kurtz's supposed argument that gay marriage in Scandinavia has had a negative impact on the institution of marriage." If that's the case, why offer only data from the first six of those fifteen years?
See for yourself why. Since 1996, this marriage rate per 1,000 has fluctuated back down to 6.5 (1997), up to 7.2 (2000), and in 2002 rested at 6.9. (Incidentally, between 1996 and 2002, Denmark's population increased only 2.2%, or 117,327 people, 79,572 of whom were immigrants not canceled out by emigrants. That leaves native population growth of only 37,755, if I'm not missing anything.)
More importantly, and less mixed up with other factors, is the trend in divorce. It's true that the number of divorces decreased from 13,731 in 1990 to 12,776 in 1996. However, they've since increased steadily each year, and in 2002, there were 15,304. That's 2.85 per 1,000 of the total population up 5.6% from 1990's 2.7, and up 18.8% from 1996's 2.4.
Sorry Darren, I don't think the door can be close just yet. What's the hurry?
Spedale has added some statistical meat to his essay. I've addressed it here.