July 9, 2004 | WebMemo on Family and Marriage
From Reformatorisch Dagblad, July 8, 2004 (original)
At a time when parliaments around the world are debating the issue of same-sex marriage, as Dutch scholars we would like to draw attention to the state of marriage in the Netherlands. The undersigned represent various academic disciplines in which marriage is an object of study.
Through this letter, we would like to express our concerns over recent trends in marriage and family life in our country.
Until the late 1980s, marriage was a flourishing institution in the Netherlands. The number of marriages was high, the number of divorces was relatively low compared to other Western countries, and the number of illegitimate births also was low. It seems, however, that legal and social experiments in the 1990s have had an adverse effect on the reputation of man's most important institution.
Over the past fifteen years, the number of marriages has declined substantially, both in absolute and in relative terms. In 1990, 95,000 marriages were solemnized (6.4 marriages per 1,000 inhabitants); by 2003, this number had dropped to 82,000 (5.1 marriages per 1,000 inhabitants).
This same period also witnessed a spectacular rise in the number of illegitimate births. In 1989 one in ten children were born out of wedlock (11 percent); by 2003, that number had risen to almost one in three (31 percent). The number of never-married people grew by more than 850,000, from 6.46 million in 1990 to 7.32 million in 2003.
People seem to attach less and less importance to marriage. More people are having children out of wedlock, even though marriage is the best setting for successfully raising a child. There is a broad base of social and legal research that shows marriage to be the best structure for the successful raising of children. A child of out-of-wedlock parents has a greater chance of experiencing problems in his or her psychological development, health, school performance, and even the quality of future relationships.
The question is, of course, what are the root causes of this decay of marriage in our country. In light of the intense debate elsewhere about the pros and cons of legalizing same-sex marriage it must be observed that there is as yet no definitive scientific evidence to suggest that the long campaign for the legalization of same-sex marriage contributed to these harmful trends. However, there are good reasons to believe that the decline in Dutch marriage may be connected to the successful public campaign for the opening of marriage to same-sex couples in the Netherlands. After all, supporters of same-sex marriage argued forcefully in favor of the (legal and social) separation of marriage from parenting. In parliament, advocates and opponents alike agreed that same-sex marriage would pave the way to greater acceptance of alternative forms of cohabitation.
In our judgment, it is difficult to imagine that a lengthy, highly visible, and ultimately successful campaign to persuade Dutch citizens that marriage is not connected to parenthood and that marriage and cohabitation are equally valid 'lifestyle choices' has not had serious social consequences. There are undoubtedly other factors that have contributed to the decline of the institution of marriage in our country. Further scientific research is needed to establish the relative importance of all these factors. At the same time, we wish to note that enough evidence of marital decline already exists to raise serious concerns about the wisdom of the efforts to deconstruct marriage in its traditional form.
Of more immediate importance than the debate about causality is the question what we in our country can do in order to reverse this harmful development. We call upon politicians, academics, and opinion leaders to acknowledge the facts that marriage in the Netherlands is now an endangered institution and that the many children born out of wedlock are likely to suffer the consequences of that development. A national debate about how we might strengthen marriage is now clearly in order.
Prof. M. van Mourik, Professor in Contract Law, Nijmegen University
Prof. A. Nuytinck, Professor in Family Law, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
Prof. R. Kuiper, Professor in Philosophy, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
J. van Loon, Ph.D., Lecturer in Social Theory, Nottingham Trent University
H. Wels, Ph.D., Lecturer in Social and Political Science, Free University, Amsterdam