I should probably say something with regards to Stanley Kurtz's latest article in the Weekly Standard, Going Dutch?: Lessons from the same-sex marriage debate in the Netherlands. And I will share a few observations, but many will probably sound familiar.
The first thing that struck me about the article was the leading graphic showing the rate of out-of-wedlock birth in the Netherlands from 1970 to 2003. It's a bar graph and the bars are blue until 1997, the year when a registered partnership bill passed, at which point the bars become red. Before looking at the text, I would have thought the red bars were a projection based on the trend of the blue bars. I was thus a little suprised that this was supposed to be evidence of an effect of registered partnerships. It turns out that the red in the graph represents those years in which "the annual increase was two percentage points, double the average annual increase of the previous 15 years." Based on the graph, which rounds rates to the nearest percent, I was curious as to why 1995 was not shaded red. I was also curious as to which was the criterion, the annual increase of two percentage points, or an annual increase that was double the average of the previous 15 years. So I decided to check Kurtz's source, the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics. Those are available online for 1970-2002 (given as a rate per 1000 live births and shown here in a bar graph) and for 2003-2004 (you need to do the division yourself). The first thing I noticed is that the criterion was certainly not an annual increase which was double the average annual increase of the past 15 years. If it were, all the years 1974 through 1984 inclusive would be red and the years 1998, 2002, and 2003 would be blue. Nor was the criterion actually an annual increase of two percentage points. If it were, 1998, 1999, 2002, and 2003 would be blue. The best I can figure, the criterion used was an annual increase of 1.5 percentage points or greater, that is an increase of two percentage points if we round after taking the difference.
Now that I understood better what the graph was actually claiming, I could start to consider its significance. Using the direct CBS numbers I noticed that the illegitimacy rate has risen every year since 1973. So the claim must be that registered partnerships exacerbated this trend. We do see from the numbers that while the rate of increase rose drastically during the 70's, the rate of increase stabilized during the 80's before rising drastically again during the 1993-1998 timeframe and then stabilizing again. Again let me emphasize I'm talking about the rate of increase. Throughout this entire period the out-of-wedlock births as a percentage of total births rose. (I should also point out that in the CBS numbers an out-of-wedlock birth is one where the mother was unmarried 307 days before the birth.) So what might have been some of the causes of this acceleration during the time frame 1993 to 1998. I don't know, but it wasn't registered partnerships and it certainly wasn't same-sex marriage. The former didn't occur until the end of that time frame (it passed in 1997 and became law in 1998) and the latter not until after it. It seems like Kurtz might realize this because he labels his graph as "Out-of-Wedlock Births and the Campaign for Same-Sex Marriage." So it seems at times that Kurtz is arguing not that same-sex marriage will lead to an increase of out-of-wedlock birth, but rather the campaign for it will. I don't know how he proposes to stop people from campaigning for same-sex marriage, but perhaps, as the subtitle of his article indicates, we can learn some lessons from the Netherlands.
In his article Kurtz refers to the danger of a menu of relationship options. Sure enough the Dutch do have four types of living/partnership arrangements recognized under family law. And all four options are open to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. It does seem natural to me that now that marriage has to compete with three other arrangements, less people will choose marriage. So the question then becomes how do we avoid this "menu" of living arrangements. One solution that seems obvious to me is to adopt same-sex marriage to begin with. That would weaken the drive for civil unions, registered partnerships, legally recognized cohabitation, etc. It wouldn't necessarily kill such movements entirely, but it does knock out a large argument for them. In most cases these programs were designed as a way of helping same-sex couples who had no other means of legal protection for their families. They were often opened up to opposite-sex couples as well for fear of discriminating against them. Kurtz seems to think that same-sex marriage is itself offering another menu option. Well yes, people could choose between opposite-sex marriage and same-sex marriage, but people can already choose from a wide variety of spouses just within an opposite-sex marriage. The choice of spouse is not a threat to marriage. It's the choice of alternative living arrangements with the same spouse. Regardless of whom one chooses for a spouse, one should be expected to take on the same obligations. The problem comes when one loses the incentives for taking on these obligations by making the same benefits available under a different obligation scheme.
Kurtz also argues about the risk of separation of marriage and parenthood. I don't believe there is a problem with claiming parenthood is not an essential component of marriage. Marriages are recognized even when there is an understanding the couple won't be having children. Marriages are recognized even when they end before any children are born. We do not need to equate marriage with parenthood, and there is no harm in pointing out they are obviously not the same thing. What is a legitimate concern is emphasizing the importance of marriage for raising children. One does a great disservice by asking people to conflate this issue with its converse because when people see the obvious, that it is not necessary for married couples to raise children, they could end up rejecting out-of-hand valid arguments for how it is important for children to be raised by married couples. Perhaps this is another lesson from the Netherlands. Instead of arguing how married couples must have children, try focusing on how marriage helps those couples that do have children. The answer is not that it gives the child a mother and a father. A couple can cohabit and do that. They can even live apart and do that. What is probably meant instead is that marriage makes it more likely for the mother and father to stay together which is good for the child. That seems like a natural argument and one can even explain how marriage helps to keep the couple together, and how that is good for the child. But then one might ask, isn't it better for a child being raised by same-sex parents for those parents to stay together? And couldn't marriage increase the chances of that couple remaining together? Likewise there are many other ways in which marriage helps children, and one can explain to people in detail how it does this. A focus on these arguments in the debate could--and hopefully would--have the effect of convincing people of the importance of getting and remaining married. I believe such arguments would also lead more people to the conclusion that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry as well. (This goes even for same-sex couples without children as, upon examination, many of the reasons marriage is good for children are also reasons it is good for the couple and the broader community.)
I am all for learning lessons from other countries with regards to the debate over same-sex marriage. That we should not be having the debate in the first place, though, is not a very practical lesson. The debate is here and it is unavoidable. Instead we should be looking for lessons on how to conduct the debate and consider carefully the alternatives for dealing with the situation. One lesson I would ask all to consider is that those who value marriage should explain in detail why marriage is so good, even if extolling its virtues might lead some to believe that same-sex couples should not be excluded from such an important institution.