Evidence Does Not Support Conservative Claims on Gay Marriage

Republicans tried to use gay marriage as a wedge issue but even the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal is no longer one hundred percent behind this. In late October they included an op-ed by Darren R. Spedale and William N. Eskridge, JR., co-authors of Gay Marriage: For Better or For Worse? What We’ve Learned From the Evidence. The evidence as published here, in one of the main publications of the right wing noise machine, does not back up the usual right wing claims:

Social conservatives suggest that legal recognition of same-sex couples has harmed society. Sen. Bill Frist has stated that “years of de facto same-sex marriage in Scandinavia has further weakened marriage”; similar claims have been made by Sens. John Cornyn, Rick Santorum, James Inhofe and Sam Brownback.

However, there is no evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry weakens the institution. If anything, the numbers indicate the opposite. A decade after Denmark, Norway and Sweden passed their respective partnership laws, heterosexual marriage rates had risen 10.7% in Denmark; 12.7% in Norway; and a whopping 28.8% in Sweden. In Denmark over the last few years, marriage rates are the highest they’ve been since the early 1970s. Divorce rates among heterosexual couples, on the other hand, have fallen. A decade after each country passed its partnership law, divorce rates had dropped 13.9% in Denmark; 6% in Norway; and 13.7% in Sweden. On average, divorce rates among heterosexuals remain lower now than in the years before same-sex partnerships were legalized.

In addition, out-of-wedlock birthrates in each of these countries contradict the suggestion by social conservatives that gay marriage will lead to great increases in out-of-wedlock births and therefore less family stability for children. In Denmark, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births was 46% in 1989; now it is 45%. In Norway, out-of-wedlock births jumped from 14% in 1980 to 45% right before partnerships were adopted in 1993; now they stand at 51%, a much lower rate of increase than in the decade before same-sex unions. The Swedish trend mirrors that of Norway, with much lower rates of increase post-partnership than pre-partnership.

Is there a correlation, then, between same-sex marriage and a strengthening of the institution of marriage? It would be difficult, and suspect, to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between these trends in heterosexual marriage and marriage rights for gays and lesbians. But the facts demonstrate that there is no proof that same-sex marriage will harm the institution of marriage, or children. An optimistic reading of the facts might even suggest that the energy and enthusiasm that same-sex couples bring to the institution of marriage may cause unmarried heterosexual couples to take a fresh look at marriage as an option.

Our research has also uncovered additional social benefits. In dozens of interviews with partnered couples and through other sources, we found that marriage rights had an important beneficial effect not only on the couples themselves, but on their local and national communities as well. Couples reported that their relationships were stronger and more durable, that relationships with family members had deepened, that co-workers had become more tolerant and supportive, and their children felt greater validation by having married parents. Many couples reported a greater emphasis on monogamy, which may be reflected by the fact that national rates of HIV and STD infections declined in each of the Scandinavian countries in the years after they passed their partnership laws.

Finally, what about the “slippery slope” argument — that same-sex marriage would start a dangerous movement toward legal recognition of socially unacceptable relationships? This hasn’t happened in Scandinavia; 17 years later, there are still no calls for recognizing polygamy, incestual marriage or marriage to animals. Danes you ask about the slippery slope think you are joking. They realize that same-sex marriages serve essentially the same goal as opposite-sex marriages: lifetime commitment to your better half, the person who completes you.

In short, the sky hasn’t fallen. Rather than scapegoating gay couples as the attackers from which marriage needs “defending,” pundits and politicians alike should look to no-fault divorce, prenuptial agreements and legal recognition of heterosexual cohabitation as the real culprits of weakened marriage. As the evidence indicates, societies where gay couples have the rights of marriage seem to be doing just fine.

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