Nordic Myths

Jim Burroway

May 28th, 2008

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa) recently published an op-ed denouncing the recent California Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. There’s much to criticize in Sen. Santorum’s op-ed, but this statistical nugget stood out in particular:

Look at Norway. It began allowing same-sex marriage in the 1990s. In just the last decade, its heterosexual-marriage rates have nose-dived and its out-of-wedlock birthrate skyrocketed to 80 percent for firstborn children.

Anti-gay activists are returning once again to Scandinavian marriage and birthrate statistics as real-world examples of what happens when you allow same-sex marriage. The argument goes something like this: If you allow same-sex marriage like Scandinavia did, then you will soon see rising out-of-wedlock birthrates and a general breakdown in marriage.

But right off the bat, Sen. Santorum gets it wrong about same-sex marriage in Norway because there is no same-sex marriage there. Instead, Norway as adopted a limited form of civil unions. Norway’s 1993 civil unions laws, for example, do not permit adoptions by same-sex couples (although Norwegian law was later changed to allow a parent to adopt his partner’s children). Norway also prohibits artificial insemination for same-sex couples as well.

And what about that statistic: Eighty percent of all firstborn children in Norway are born out of wedlock? Where did he get that figure?

Well one thing I know for certain is that Santorum didn’t get it from the StatBank Norway website. StatBank Norway is the official repository for all statistical information about Norway. They have tons of statistics on population growth and characteristics, births, deaths, marriage, divorce, and economic data. But I’ve been unable to find anything on their web site breaking down the family status of firstborn children.

And so I started looking around for where this 80 percent statistic might have come from. It appears to have originated with Stanly Kurtz’s National Review article from May 25, 2004, where he claims:

Add the children of single parents and step families, and we are surely at over 50 percent of children living with unmarried parents in Norway’s liberal north. If that sounds high, consider that in 2002, 83 percent of first-born children in the northern Norwegian county of Nord-Troendelag were born outside of marriage, as were 58 percent of subsequent children.

If what Kurtz says is true, then it’s not all of Norway that is experiencing this explosion of firstborn babies born outside of marriage. It is just one county of Nord-Troendelag. But Kurtz doesn’t provide any citation for that statistic, so we still don’t know where it comes from. He later provides a link to a summary from StatBank Norway, but it doesn’t mention the firstborn statistic at all. (I’ve updated the link to a cached version of the page as it appeared on StatBank Norway as of April 6, 2004.) So we’re still left in the dark as to where this statistic came from, and we have no way to verify whether it’s true or not.

But we can verify that Norway’s overall birth rate outside of marriage is pretty high, and it has been for quite some time. We can see this by combining data from Norway’s Statistical Yearbooks for 2007 and 1996 and plotting that data on a single graph. When we do that, we can see that the rate of births outside of marriage had skyrocketed throughout the seventies and eighties, only to level off somewhat in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Norwegian Births Outside of Marriage

But more specifically with respect to civil unions, look at what the data tells us:

  1. Before 1993, the percentage of births outside of marriage grew steadily by an average of about 9% per year.
  2. After civil unions were enacted in 1993, the growth of that birth rate slowed dramatically. The the growth rate fell from 9% per year to an average of less than 1.5% per year between 1993 and 2006.

Which means that if there were a cause and effect between Norway’s birth rate outside of marriage and providing civil unions for same-sex couples, the data suggests that civil unions actually had a dramatic affect in slowing the rate of births outside of marriage.

Now I don’t believe that a case can be made linking civil unions with the rate of births outside of marriage. But if Santorum, Kurtz or anyone else insists on there being a connection, then so be it. The data is on our side.


May 28th, 2008

Proving once again, there’s lies, damn lies, and statistics. Credulous readers will take Kurtz and Santorum’s word for it when it comes to the contorted assertions they make using statistics that actually disprove their point.

But you can’t force people to think for themselves. You can only show them the folly of taking partisan rhetoric at face value and hope they begin to have an epiphany.

Jason D

May 28th, 2008

Does no one see through that paper-thin connection? B happened after A, therefore they are connected??

I guess the sun set last night because I ate Red Beans and Rice.

I guess the sun came up this morning because I packed my bag for the gym.

I had no idea that having coffee instead of tea this morning would make the office building repairmen come up to work on the door! I had no idea there was even a problem with the door!

I have to go, I need to save the world by organizing my desk drawer and restarting my computer!


May 28th, 2008

Jim- wonderful breakdown. I would really like to urge you to send this as a letter to the editor in response to Santorum’s OpEd.

Pretty unbelievable that people will outright lie just to try to prove they are right.


May 28th, 2008

I still can’t fathom why anyone would think civil unions/gay marriage would cause lower straight marriage or higher extra-marital sex. Are straight people really going to think, “well, now that gays can marry, what’s the point of me getting married?”

Oh, that’s right. It’s irrational.


May 28th, 2008

I highly recommend reading “Gay Marriage: for Better or for Worse?: What We’ve Learned from the Evidence”
by William N. Eskridge and Darren R. Spedale. The authors study the history and statistical evidence of government-sanctioned same-sex unions in Denmark (since 1989), Norway (since 1993) and Sweden (since 1995).

There’s plenty of data available now to debunk the concerns described by the far right about the impending destruction of marriage by allowing same-sex couples to wed. Nevertheless, there is a need to explain the cultural differences in Scandanavia that also include individuals marrying later and in smaller proportions than in the U.S. But those trends were pre-existing, and as Jim highlights above, were either unchanged or improved by the existence of same-sex unions.

I haven’t seen any statistical information out of Massachusetts, which is going to be culturally more similar to California. It already appears that Massachusetts has a lower divorce rate than the red states like Texas.


May 28th, 2008

Great analysis, Jim. I actually saw this op-ed by Santorum and got angry when I read his “statistics” from Scandinavia. I remember reading similar “data” in the monthly newsletter produced by one of the ex-gay ministries I used to attend.

I actually own a copy of “Gay Marriage: for Better or for Worse?” that Walt mentioned in an earlier comment to this post. It’s a great book, and I recommend it as well. It takes on specifically the arguments by Stanley Kurtz that have been repeated ad nauseum by conservative folks.

As always, thanks for debunking the statistical lies :-)


May 28th, 2008

From living in Norway for two years I can tell you that the declining marriage rate has nothing to do with same-sex “Partnerskap” (civil unions).

There is a trend in the culture that pushes off marriage until after people feel like they have a real lasting relationship. Because of a type of common-law marriage called “Samboerskap,” (living-together ship,) and the financial pressure of a wedding ceremony, many couples end up waiting longer to officially get married. Frequently this means their children are born “out of wedlock,” as Mr. Santorum would describe it. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t born in a home with their mother and father. If anything, Norwegians take marriage much MORE seriously than Americans.

As an intersting side note, many of the societal problems that conservatives like Rick Santorum blame on progressive ideas about marriage and sex are much smaller in Norway. Teen pregancy, STD and abortion rates are much, much lower in liberal Norway than the conservative U.S.


May 28th, 2008

Do they have fact-checkers at the inquirer, and have you informed them of this blatant (likely intentional) error?


May 29th, 2008

Jim, there you go again, clouding the issue with the facts.

There’s just no reasoning with you when you do that!

Emily K

May 29th, 2008

Take it from someone who lives in Philly: the Inquirer is like a step above USA Today, “America’s McPaper.”

I much prefer to get my news online, from someone like NY Times or BBC.

Jim PLEASE send this to the editor at the Inquirer. I’ll try to do it in the form of a link from your site.

Ben in Oakland

May 29th, 2008

I tried to figure out how to send a letter to the editor and just gave up.


May 30th, 2008

Ben, from here:

“Submissions to the main letters section may be e-mailed to; mailed to Readers Editor, The Inquirer, Box 41705, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101; or faxed to 215-854-4483. Questions? Call 215-854-5801.”

Also: “Readers can comment on today’s editorials by phone at 215-854-5060 or e-mail”

Check that link to make sure you include all the info they want to accompany submissions.

Jim, you might need to do a bit of reworking but I think you should submit this post as an op-ed piece:

“Submissions to the op-ed page may be e-mailed to; mailed to Commentary Page Editor, The Inquirer, Box 41705, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101; or faxed to 215-854-4483. Questions? Call 215-854-2905. Complete op/ed guidelines can be found at
Guidelines for Opinion Pieces

Emily K

May 30th, 2008

I sent one already. I just googled “Inquirer philadelphia letters to the editor”

In my letter i told them to look at Jim’s blog post. Jim I agree you should offer it up as an op ed piece.

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