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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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.