The Magazine

Going Dutch?

From the May 31, 2004 issue: Lessons of the same-sex marriage debate in the Netherlands.

May 31, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 36 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO, two prominent demographers hailed the Dutch family as a model for Europe. Somehow the Dutch had managed to combine liberal family law and a robust welfare state with a surprisingly traditional attitude toward marriage. Even as a new pattern of highly unstable parental cohabitation was sweeping out of Scandinavia and across northern Europe, the Dutch were unswayed. To be sure, premarital cohabitation was widespread, but when Dutch couples decided to have children, they got married. At least they used to.

Today, marriage is in trouble in the Netherlands. In the mid-1990s, out-of-wedlock births, already rising, began a steeper increase, nearly doubling to 31 percent of births in 2003. These were the very years when the debate over the legal recognition of gay relationships came to the fore in the Netherlands, culminating in the legalization of full same-sex marriage in 2000. The conjunction is no coincidence.

A careful look at the decade-long campaign for same-sex marriage in the Netherlands shows that one of its principal themes was the effort to dislodge the conviction that parenthood and marriage are intrinsically linked. Even as proponents of gay marriage argued vigorously--and ultimately successfully--that marriage should be just one of many relationship options, fewer Dutch parents were choosing marriage over cohabitation. No longer a marked exception on the European scene, the Dutch are now traveling down the Scandinavian path.

Call it the end of the Dutch paradox, the distinctive combination of liberal social policies and traditional behavior. On euthanasia, prostitution, drug use, and now gay marriage, Dutch law is the cutting edge of Western liberalism. Yet among Dutch people, drug use and sexual license are far from rampant. Many have asked whether this balance of tolerance and tradition, with its deep roots in Dutch culture and history, is sustainable over the long term. At least for marriage, the answer appears to be no.

THE ORIGINS of Dutch tolerance lie in the mercantile pragmatism of Holland's Golden Age, under the republic of the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then, the Dutch had their own Puritans, who, as American gradeschoolers used to learn, harbored the English religious dissenters for more than a decade before they set sail on the voyage that would take them to Plymouth Rock. More recently, Holland's blend of tolerance and tradition found expression in the late 19th- and early 20th-century policy of "pillarization." Dutch society was divided into three "pillars." Calvinists, Catholics, and socialists lived in self-contained worlds, each with its own universities, newspapers, football leagues, and eventually radio and television stations. Working together, the elites of the three pillars kept conflict at bay by setting principle aside and adopting an attitude of pragmatic toleration.

Today, the ghost of pillarization survives in the Dutch tendency to cede a large degree of cultural liberty to others, while behaving traditionally themselves. When a new social movement presents itself to a Dutchman, he typically says, in effect: Do as you please, but I'll go on as before. This tolerance for what is culturally alien is a legacy from a world built on religion. Not obvious is what happens when tolerance remains and religion disappears.

No Western society has secularized more radically or rapidly than Holland. The cultural revolution of the 1960s weakened the churches. Once faith became too fragile to sustain the social order, the pillars collapsed. The Netherlands changed from one of the most religious countries in Europe to one of the most secular. Today, nearly three-quarters of the Dutch under 35 claim no religious affiliation. The very speed of the collapse virtually guaranteed that some traditional patterns of behavior would linger at first. Sooner or later, though, would Dutch society fray, as one social experiment after another drew down the cultural capital of the past?

This question has come into sharp focus around the family. Even as premarital cohabitation became nearly universal, and as cohabitation acquired virtually equal status with marriage under Dutch law in the 1980s, scholars attributed Holland's continuing attachment to parental marriage to the persistence of the Calvinist and Catholic moral codes.

Not everyone applauded this. Many of Europe's social scientists and public intellectuals are cultural radicals who hope to see marriage replaced by cohabitation and an expanded welfare state. But in 2002, British demographer David Coleman coauthored an article with one of Holland's premier demographers, Joop Garssen, that held up the Netherlands as an alternative to the Swedish model. Noting Sweden's falling fertility rate, unsustainable welfare system, and burdened children reared in fragile cohabiting families, Coleman and Garssen proposed Holland's combination of liberal laws, liberal social welfare policies, and relatively traditional marriage as a better pattern to sustain the European family.

Coleman and Garssen, who focused on the years through 1998, noted the beginning of what would turn out to be an unusual annual increase of two percentage points in Dutch out-of-wedlock births. It would continue for seven consecutive years (and counting), as parental cohabitation spread and Holland's vaunted marriage traditionalism waned. What happened?

One thing that happened was the push for same-sex marriage. It began in earnest in the Netherlands in 1989. After several attempts to legalize gay marriage through the courts failed in 1990, advocates launched a campaign of cultural-political activism. They set up symbolic marriage registries in sympathetic cities and towns (although the marriages had no legal force), and the largely sympathetic news and entertainment media chimed in.

The movement picked up steam after the election of a socially liberal government in 1994--the first government since 1913 to include no representatives of the socially conservative Christian Democratic party. A series of parliamentary debates and public appeals began that would run through the end of the decade.

In 1996, the lower house of parliament passed a motion calling for gay marriage, and the government began to plan for full-fledged same-sex marriage. The following year, parliament legalized registered partnerships. Same-sex couples appeared on a honeymoon television show and the like. Finally, same-sex marriage was approved in late 2000. By then, large majorities in parliament had come around: The lower house passed gay marriage 109-33, the upper house 49-26. The law became effective on April 1, 2001.

Before meeting this defeat, the defenders of traditional marriage, needless to say, fought back. With one voice, they swore that procreation and parenthood were the essence of marriage. In the first serious national debate on the issue, in 1996, Christian Democratic party chairman Hans Helgers made this case. And in 2000, Kars Veling, speaking for three of the smaller religious parties, repeatedly highlighted what he called the unique and universal procreative structure of marriage.

The most sustained and acute presentation of the argument from procreation probably came from Cees van der Staaij, a member of parliament from one of the small religious parties, the SGP. Van der Staaij argued in 2000 that the principle of equality cannot by itself resolve the issue of same-sex marriage. The equality principle applies only to those who are similarly situated. If procreation is essentially related to marriage, and even the possibility of procreation is "structurally missing" in same-sex couples, then heterosexual and homosexual couples are differently situated, and the equality principle does not apply.

Van der Staaij pointed out a critical problem in the government's proposal for same-sex marriage. Would the law recognize the usual ties of descent between children and married couples? Would, say, the female spouse of a mother who conceived a child automatically become the parent of the biologically unrelated child? If so, the implication was, might such a child have three simultaneous legal parents? And if so, would this not set off a cascade of legal pressures to repudiate the two-parent standard (a process that is playing itself out right now in Sweden)?

The government opted to avoid the issue by denying automatic parental rights to same-sex spouses. But, as Van der Staaij noted, that decision opened up a dangerous gap between the traditionally conjoined notions of marriage and parenthood. The dilemma itself stood as stark proof that in a matter heretofore central to marriage, homosexual and heterosexual couples are indeed differently situated.

THE PROPONENTS of gay marriage never bought this. In 1996, in the pages of their flagship publication, De Gay Krant (The Gay News), columnist Cees van der Pluijm sharply rejected the notion that marriage ought to be defined by the possibility of having children. True, Van der Pluijm himself opposed marriage, favoring instead a morally neutral system of relationship regulation. Marriage, he said, is essentially a fairy tale of permanent monogamy that deserves to be repudiated by all. Nonetheless, Van der Pluijm affirmed that, on the principle of equality, if heterosexuals can marry, homosexuals ought to be allowed to do so as well. From his radical perspective, that could only change the meaning of marriage and relationship for the better, since gays, Van der Pluijm affirmed, are the symbol of an alternative morality, of sex separated from procreation, of freedom, and of modern life.

Four years later, during the final parliamentary debate on gay marriage, Otto Vos--a spokesman for the centrist-liberal VVD party, at the other end of the pro-gay-marriage coalition--made much the same radical argument. Embracing a definition of marriage as separate from parenthood, he argued that the real basis of marriage is the love between two partners. Actually, Vos said something more remarkable than that.

What he said was, "Proceeding on the basis of the notion that love between two partners forms the most important driving force in selecting one of the forms of relationship, there is absolutely no reason, objectively, to distinguish between heterosexual love and homosexual love." Vos, in other words, joined in the call for treating marriage as just one choice on a menu of relationship options.

Gay marriage opponent Van der Staaij had warned of exactly that. If marriage is decoupled from procreation, asked Van der Staaij, how can other radical innovations be avoided? He cited a 1984 article from Nederlands Juristenblad (The Journal of Dutch Law) that called for the total removal of marriage from the sphere of the state. Superficially, said Van der Staaij, legalizing same-sex marriage seems to be the opposite of abolishing marriage. Yet by stretching the notion of marriage to embrace a complex array of alternative forms, one would accomplish the legal abolition of marriage by other means.

NOTHING ILLUMINATES the cultural shift in the Dutch understanding of marriage so clearly as the contrast between the conservative Van der Staaij and the centrist-liberal Vos during the final gay marriage debate in 2000. Vos, like many in his party, had opposed gay marriage only two years before. Once Vos and his party moved firmly into the gay marriage camp, the parliamentary battle was over.

It is noteworthy that when Vos switched sides, he did not adopt a moderate defense of same-sex marriage. He never argued that gay marriage would strengthen marriage for all. Instead, Vos flipped from traditionalism to a view of relationships barely distinguishable from that of radicals like Van der Pluijm.

It wasn't necessary for Van der Staaij to wait years to see his warnings about the slippery slope from gay marriage to de facto abolition of the institution borne out. Indeed, Vos himself approvingly cited the very article from Nederlands Juristenblad that Van der Staaij had brandished as a warning. Yes, said Vos, the government ought to get out of the marriage business altogether. The state has no business encouraging citizens to choose marriage over other relationships.

Startled by Vos's radical shift, leaders of the other parties pressed him to explain his change of heart. Tellingly, Vos attributed his own earlier opposition to gay marriage to sheer inertial traditionalism.

So the juxtaposition of Van der Staaij the steadfast traditionalist and Vos the new radical encapsulates the shift in the Dutch understanding of marriage precipitated by the decade-long debate over same-sex unions. Van der Staaij speaks for those increasingly marginalized Dutch who continue to view marriage in largely traditional terms. Vos represents the secular center, once content to ride the rails of tradition, now radicalized by the same-sex marriage debate.

THESE TWO EMBLEMATIC LEADERS' radical view of gay marriage is widely held. The leaders of De Gay Krant--the sparkplugs of the movement for gay marriage--always sought full social recognition for homosexuality, not the reinforcement of the position of marriage in society. De Gay Krant's history of the gay marriage movement makes no mention of what in America is called the "conservative case" for same-sex marriage--the argument that gay marriage will encourage gay monogamy and strengthen the unique appeal and status of marriage for all.

The Dutch movement for gay marriage got a major boost when the main Dutch gay rights organization, the COC, finally joined De Gay Krant in the fight. For the first five years of the battle, COC had refused to support the cause, on the grounds that marriage was an oppressive and outdated institution. The COC never changed its mind on that score. When it finally joined hands with De Gay Krant in 1995, COC openly declared that this was a tactical shift that did not signify acceptance of marriage as an institution.

The Dutch left was similarly frank about its radical understanding of gay marriage. During the 2000 parliamentary debates, Green party spokesman Femke Halsema said it was only when considered superficially that the drive for same-sex marriage appeared to contradict the feminist quest for the abolition of marriage. In reality, said Halsema, conservative opponents were largely right to claim that gay marriage would be tantamount to the abolition of marriage--which was exactly why gay marriage was a good thing. Halsema added that the logical consequence of her position was that registered partnerships ought to be protected and encouraged as a nontraditional alternative to marriage.

The Greens had recognized the radical significance of gay marriage as early as 1996. At the time, Dutch lesbian intellectual Xandra Schutte argued in De Groene Amsterdammer (The Green Amsterdammer) that providing gay marriage as one of a menu of relationship options was the equivalent of the abolition of marriage. Necessarily, Schutte emphasized, gays would be trendsetters in removing the connection between marriage and parenthood, thereby pushing society toward a more flexible conception of relationships (which, she said, could include three- and foursomes).

A comparable position was implicit in the stance of the governing coalition. During the 2000 debate, Boris Dittrich, spokesman for the liberal D66 party, a member of the governing coalition and floor manager of the gay marriage bill, suggested that changes could be made to registered partnerships that would establish them more securely as a "light" alternative to marriage. So the main government sponsor of the gay marriage bill was still another who saw same-sex marriage as an invitation to further experimentation with the relationship system.

And that is exactly what has developed in the years since gay marriage was enacted. The revised parental leave act passed by parliament in 2001 extends the rights of married couples and registered partners to unregistered cohabitors. The 2001 revision of the tax code also extends rights to unregistered as well as registered partners. These legal changes--which came five years into the upsurge of Dutch parental cohabitation--confirm that the legalization of gay marriage in the Netherlands is associated not with renewed emphasis on the privileged status of marriage but with the opposite.

Dutch opponents of gay marriage don't seem to have spent any time rebutting the "conservative case" for gay marriage. Why should they? All participants in the debate--the gay community as well as the political left, center, and right--took gay marriage to signify the replacement of marriage by a flexible and morally neutral range of relationship options.

To appreciate gay marriage's role in encouraging the recent upsurge of Dutch parental cohabitation, we need only take seriously what participants in the Dutch debate said. Spend a decade telling people that marriage is not about parenthood and they just might begin to believe you. Make relationship equality a rallying cry, and people might decide that all forms of relationship are equal--especially young people, of family-forming age, most of whom have left religion behind. Dutch conservatives made a valiant stand for procreation and parenting as of the essence of marriage, and they were soundly beaten. Having duly considered and rejected the essential tie between marriage and parenthood, the Dutch started to abandon their inertial traditionalism and began to experiment with parental cohabitation in record numbers.

Again and again, voices from across the political spectrum argued that gay marriage signifies the demotion or abolition of marriage as the socially preferred setting for parenthood. It should come as no surprise when Dutch parents act accordingly.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.