Much as I’d like to follow up that headline with a moving account of a ceremony officiated by Ed Crane in the glass-enclosed atrium, I’m actually referring to a forum on Gay Marriage, from which I’ve just returned coinciding with the release of a new Cato paper opposing the Federal Marriage Amendment, at which Yale law prof William Eskridge (author of Gay Marriage: For Better or Worse?: What we’ve learned from the evidence) debated marriage pundit Maggie Gallagher (with whom I recently had a little exchange of my own) on the question of whether Scandinavia’s experience with same-sex registered partnerships show that such legal recognition undermines marriage.
Or, at any rate, that’s what they were supposed to be debating. Actually Eskridge opened with quick survey of the data from those countries as a test of the argument made popular by Stanley Kurtz that such partnerships were undermining marriage and encouraging out-of-wedlock births. It would, of course, be a tricky social science question to determine whether the increase in such births following the legal recognition of gay unions were caused by such recognition… but fortunately, we get to avoid that thicket, because there’s been no such increase. Out-of-wedlock childbearing skyrocketed in Scandinavia in the decades before laws recognizing gay unions passed, and plateaued or declined thereafter. Now, Kurtz himself has attempted to adress this sort of counter with a variety of argumentative gymnastics about what periods of time it’s relevant to look at and what kinds of confounding factors need to be controlled for. But, interestingly, we got almost nothing of that sort from Gallagher on what was, in principle, the core of the debate: She just conceded that Kurtz fails to make his case, and that it’s too soon to say anything with confidence about how gay partnerships have affected heterosexual marriage.
Instead, Maggie rehearsed her by-now-familiar case against gay marriage, centering on its importance for children. The interesting thing about her standard argument, as I’ve noted before, is how much of it has nothing to do with establishing the case against gay marriage. (Unlike Kurtz, she actually seems perfectly happy to recognize gay civil unions… which seems a little strange to me, if you’re making an argument centrally about cultural spillover effects, because it seems inevitable that in the broader culture, the distinction would disappear for practical purposes. People aren’t going to say “we got civil unioned; this is my civil union partner.” They’re going to say “we got married; this is my husband.”) A supporter of gay marriage can basically agree with 99 percent of what she says: the stuff about the benefits of marriage to children that she spends the bulk of her time on.
The crucial claim she makes, the point of dispute, is whether conceding that providing a framework for the rearing of a couple’s own biological children (and this is crucial, since of course gays can adopt or have kids from previous relationships or make use of reproductive technologies) is not the unique function of and justification for marriage will change people’s martial behavior in a way that leads to more kids growing up outside of marriage. And I think I now finally understand her argument for why this might be a little more clearly than before. She thinks that the logic of permitting gay marriage either is premised on and sends the signal that marriage and procreation are not at all connected. And I guess she might have a point if that were the case. But it’s just mystifying to me why we can’t instead say: “Marriage serves many important personal and social functions. One of them is regulating procreation and childrearing, but there are others.” And her own arguments actually entail that you don’t want people thinking of marriage just in terms of childrearing, but in terms of romantic commitment, because it’s better if hetero couples who are having regular sex but have no intention of having kids are married, both to cement the norm of marriage and because, hey, the condom might break despite their intentions, and it’d be good if they were married when that happened.
She might, one supposes, argue that you could say childrearing is one among several important functions of marriage, but that people are more likely to draw the “no relation” inference. I’m not sure why. She sometimes says some very weird things on this score, to the effect that allowing gay marriage is a symbolic affirmation that children don’t need fathers. I still have no idea how that’s supposed to work. But it seems like someone who’s making this argument would want to test whether, in fact, there is some kind of correlation like this. Is out-of-wedlock childbearing strongly correlated with having a view of marriage such that you endorse extending it to gay couples?
I don’t know if anyone’s studied this directly—it would probably be hard to single out the effects of this particular attitude from a whole complex of more or less traditional views and dispositions that might affect procreative and marital behaviors. But as a rough-and-ready proxy test, we might try looking at some groups where marriage and childbearing remain strongly connected, and some others where the link has been broken, and then see if it looks like there might be some reason to expect a correlation. This is, admittedly, a very sloppy way to go about it, but I figure it’s at least up to Kurtzian standards. The chart on the right shows that college graduates are across the board more supportive of gay marriage than non-grads, and since support in these surveys seems to rise steadily with education, it’s a safe bet you’d see an even bigger gap if we were comparing college grads with people who never finished high school. And while maybe some of those supporters hold that view only because they think it’s important that gay couples who adopt kids be able to marry, I think we can safely read support for gay marriage as generally inolving a view that marriage is at least not exclusively about childrearing—that uniting a loving and commited couple is a sufficient reason.
Now, as Kay Hymowitz recently noted in City Journal, there’s a huge economic and educational gap when it comes to out-of-wedlock childbearing. Let me quote her on this:
As of 2000, only about 10 percent of mothers with 16 or more years of education—that is, with a college degree or higher—were living without husbands. Compare that with 36 percent of mothers who have between nine and 14 years of education. All the statistics about marriage so often rehashed in magazine and newspaper articles hide a startling truth. Yes, 33 percent of children are born to single mothers; in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, that amounted to 1.5 million children, the highest number ever. But the vast majority of those children are going home from the maternity wards to low-rent apartments. Yes, experts predict that about 40 to 50 percent of marriages will break up. But most of those divorces will involve women who have always shopped at Wal-Mart. “[T]he rise in single-parent families is concentrated among blacks and among the less educated,” summarize Ellwood and Jencks. “It hardly occurred at all among women with a college degree.”
There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, and I looked at a lot of them in my review-essay in the June Reason. Obviously, it’s not the case that opposition to gay marriage causes out-of-wedlock childbearing or anything silly like that. Still, it seems at least suggestive that the marital trends conservatives fret about have “hardly occurred at all” among the group most likely to hold a view of marriage compatible with extending the institution to gay couples. Again, this is scarcely definitive, but just eyeballing the rough shape of the trends, it looks like the Gallagher thesis is at least tentatively falsified. People who do not view marriage as an exclusively procreative institution do not appear to invert that conclusion and decide that procreation ought to be non-marital.