Are we witnessing the end of marriage? In a fascinating study, researcher Stanley Kurtz of the Hoover Institution indicates that marriage is already dying in Scandinavia, and his evidence demands attention. In Sweden and Norway, a majority of children are now born out of wedlock. A full 60-percent of first-born children in Denmark have unmarried parents.

The background to Kurtz's research is the claim made by advocates of same-sex marriage that the legitimization of homosexual relationships poses no threat to the institution of marriage. Nonsense, responds Kurtz. "Same-sex marriage has locked in and reinforced an existing Scandinavian trend toward the separation of marriage and parenthood. The Nordic family pattern--including gay marriage--is spreading across Europe. And by looking closely at it we can answer the key empirical question underlying the gay marriage debate. Will same-sex marriage undermine the institution of marriage?" Kurtz is ready with an answer to his own question: "It already has."

Of course, the concept of gay marriage did not begin the process of family disillusion and the destruction of marriage in Scandinavia. Kurtz, whose report appears in the February 2 edition of The Weekly Standard, explains that the recognition of gay marriage has "widened the separation" between marriage and parenthood, further undermining the institution of marriage. "Instead of encouraging a society-wide return to marriage, Scandinavian gay marriage has driven home the message that marriage itself is outdated, and that virtually any family form, including out-of-wedlock parenthood, is acceptable," he explains.

Just how bad is the situation in Scandinavia? A recent study published by Harvard University Press indicates that some young married couples in Scandinavian countries are reluctant even to admit that they are married. Since the cultural expectation is cohabitation, marriage has become something of an embarrassment for the minority of young couples who have formalized their relationship through either a secular contract or a sacred covenant. That represents a moral transformation of awesome importance, for it represents the reversal of millennia of moral wisdom.

Kurtz gets to the point quickly: "Scandinavian marriage is now so weak that statistics on marriage and divorce no longer mean what they used to." The fact is that divorce rates are in a precipitous decline in Scandinavian nations. Does that sound like good news? To the contrary--a couple must first get married before they can divorce. By definition, the end of marriage also means the end of divorce.

Throughout Scandinavia and much of Western Europe, marriage and parenthood are being separated in both concept and practice. Those who insist that marriage is a moral requirement for the bearing of children are considered odd and out of date.

For the last twenty years or more, the trend has been toward young couples cohabitating through the birth of their children and staying together for at least several years after the children are born. This is a marked distinction from the pattern in the United States, where unmarried parents tend to be alone rather than in any stable partnership with the other parent.

For this reason, divorce becomes a much less useful category for understanding the health of family life. As Kurtz reports, in Scandinavia "what counts is the out-of-wedlock birthrate, and the family disillusion rate." Family disillusion is the separation of birth parents after the birth of the child. "Because so many Scandinavians now rear children outside of marriage," Kurtz explains, "divorce rates are unreliable measures of family weakness. Instead we need to note the rate at which parents (married or not) split up."