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.
But more specifically with respect to civil unions, look at what the data tells us:
- Before 1993, the percentage of births outside of marriage grew steadily by an average of about 9% per year.
- 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.