The Magazine

Defining Marriage Down . . .

is no way to save it.

Apr 2, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 28 • By DAVID BLANKENHORN
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Does permitting same-sex marriage weaken marriage as a social institution? Or does extending to gay and lesbian couples the right to marry have little or no effect on marriage overall? Scholars and commentators have expended much effort trying in vain to wring proof of causation from the data--all the while ignoring the meaning of some simple correlations that the numbers do indubitably show.

Much of the disagreement among scholars centers on how to interpret trends in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Stanley Kurtz has argued, in this magazine and elsewhere, that the adoption of gay marriage or same-sex civil unions in those countries has significantly weakened customary marriage, already eroded by easy divorce and stigma-free cohabitation.

William Eskridge, a Yale Law School professor, and Darren R. Spedale, an attorney, beg to differ. In Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse?, a book-length reply to Kurtz, they insist that Kurtz does not prove that gay marriage is causing anything in those nations; that Nordic marriage overall appears to be healthier than Kurtz allows; and that even if marriage is declining in that part of the world, "the question remains whether that phenomenon is a lamentable development."

Eskridge and Spedale want it both ways. For them, there is no proof that marriage has weakened, but if there were it wouldn't be a problem. For people who care about marriage, this perspective inspires no confidence. Eskridge and Spedale do score one important point, however. Neither Kurtz nor anyone else can scientifically prove that allowing gay marriage causes the institution of marriage to get weaker. Correlation does not imply causation. The relation between two correlated phenomena may be causal, or it may be random, or it may reflect some deeper cause producing both. Even if you could show that every last person in North Carolina eats barbecue, you would not have established that eating barbecue is a result of taking up residence in North Carolina.

When it comes to the health of marriage as an institution and the legal status of same-sex unions, there is much to be gained from giving up the search for causation and studying some recurring patterns in the data, as I did for my book The Future of Marriage. It turns out that certain clusters of beliefs about and attitudes toward marriage consistently correlate with certain institutional arrangements. The correlations crop up in a large number of countries and recur in data drawn from different surveys of opinion.

Take the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), a collaborative effort of universities in over 40 countries. It interviewed about 50,000 adults in 35 countries in 2002. What is useful for our purposes is that respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements that directly relate to marriage as an institution:

1. Married people are generally happier than unmarried people.

2. People who want children ought to get married.

3. One parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together.

4. It is all right for a couple to live together without intending to get married.

5. Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can't seem to work out their marriage problems.

6. The main purpose of marriage these days is to have children.

Let's stipulate that for statements one, two, and six, an "agree" answer indicates support for traditional marriage as an authoritative institution. Similarly, for statements three, four, and five, let's stipulate that agreement indicates a lack of support, or less support, for traditional marriage.

Then divide the countries surveyed into four categories: those that permit same-sex marriage; those that permit same-sex civil unions (but not same-sex marriage); those in which some regions permit same-sex marriage; and those that do not legally recognize same-sex unions.

The correlations are strong. Support for marriage is by far the weakest in countries with same-sex marriage. The countries with marriage-like civil unions show significantly more support for marriage. The two countries with only regional recognition of gay marriage (Australia and the United States) do better still on these support-for-marriage measurements, and those without either gay marriage or marriage-like civil unions do best of all.