|P E N S I O N B E N E F I T S
The Price of Partnership
• As homosexuals in parts of Europe press for the right to marry, some heterosexuals are asserting their right not to. After British soldier Brad Tinnion was killed in action in Sierra Leone a year ago, his partner of nine years, Anna Homsi, tried to claim a war widow's pension. Since the two had never married, the Ministry of Defence said no. Like its counterparts in other European countries, including France and Germany, Britain's MoD has no provision for partners who have not established the legal link of marriage. (The couple's daughter, Georgia, born three months after Tinnion died, receives benefits automatically.)
• Last month, after the case stirred fierce public debate over the rights of unmarried partners, the MoD announced it would discuss a settlement with Homsi. She would not get the war widow's pension, says an MoD spokesman, but rather an "ex-gratia payment recognizing that in her case there are exceptional circumstances." Homsi's solicitor, Tom Reah, says that his client is still waiting to hear what the MoD might offer but notes that there are larger issues at stake. "Anna Homsi is concerned about herself, obviously," he says. "But she also wants to make sure that anyone else in her position is looked after properly."
• At this point, there's no guarantee that will happen. But the MoD is reviewing the entire issue of unmarried partners from benefits to accommodation of homosexual couples following last year's lifting of the ban on gays in the military. The military doesn't want the Homsi case to set a precedent. Still, the official review is a sign, and not the only one, that Britain is re-evaluating how its rules fit a changing society. In July, Members of Parliament voted to extend pension benefits to unmarried partners of M.P.s, gay or straight. The policy has not been extended to other government employees yet, but Liberal Democrat M.P. Evan Harris, who sponsored the amendment, is pushing for more change. "The public sector needs to keep up with the lifestyles and financial interdependence of modern couples," he says. "I'm campaigning to make these policies non-discriminatory."
• Not everyone agrees that the Homsi case is a valid example of bias. "Discrimination mainly applies to circumstances where people have no choice," wrote Sunday Telegraph columnist Mary Kenny. "Brad and Anna did have the choice, and they chose not to marry." If the policy is to change, where should the government draw the new, blurry line to replace marriage? Says Reah: "If you can prove that you're a long-term established partner, you should be treated the same as a married person." But how does one prove partnership? What constitutes long-term? "Marriage is a contract and a public commitment to share," says James Jones, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, who has written extensively on the importance of marriage. "Partnership is a private arrangement which deliberately lacks that public commitment and those legal obligations." That's true today. But if Homsi and Harris have their way, partnership will soon come with recognized benefits and take on public characteristics that make it look a lot like marriage.
Stig Skovlind and Malene Breining Nielsen met 21 years ago, when he was 17 and she was 19. The Danish couple went to the same school, where Stig admits he developed a crush on Malene. "When I finally caught her, we fell deeply in love. We had so much in common so much to talk about," he says. And in 1982, 18 months after they started dating, the two moved in together. Over the years they pursued their careers Stig is a musician and sound technician; Malene a preschool teacher lived in a series of rented homes in Elsinore, a city 50 km from Copenhagen, and had three children: Aske, now 11; Joel, 9 and daughter Signe, 6. What they never did was get married.
"We considered marriage when we had our first child, mainly because it would give Stig a stronger position [on custody rights] in case we split up," says Malene. But they quickly decided to leave things as they were. "We trust each other. We don't need a document," she says. Adds Stig: "Our attachment has to do with what we feel for each other. If we let legislation into our private space, it would not be good." Though both come from broken homes Stig's parents divorced when he was 12; Malene's when she was 18 they say that experience only played a minor role in their decision not to marry. The couple says that roughly half their friends have similarly chosen to live together and raise children without getting married.
That pattern holds true throughout much of Scandinavia, where about half of all children are born out of wedlock, almost double the E.U. average. This more informal structure is helped by a legal framework that is increasingly sympathetic to nontraditional families: in Denmark, for example, under a law passed this year, cohabiting couples automatically have joint custody of newborn children.
Throughout Europe, couples like the Skovlind-Nielsens are redefining what the term family means in the year 2001. Forget the stereotype of a bread-winning father, stay-at-home mother and 2.4 children in a one-family dwelling, garage attached. Divorce is one factor contributing to the reconfiguring of the traditional family structure. It's on the rise, and if the four-times-married German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is any kind of barometer, divorce doesn't carry the social stigma it once did. Add to that the exploding number of single mothers, some of whom have never married and have no plans to; couples who decide to have smaller families than their parents did, or no children at all; the recent decision by some European countries to give homosexual relationships some of the same legal rights as their heterosexual counterparts and you have a far different portrait of the typical European family than existed just a generation ago. In the past 10 years in Germany, for instance, the number of single-parent households with a man at the head has risen by 63%, with female-led households rising by 31% over the same period. In France, the number of divorces has increased fourfold since 1965, while the number of adults deciding to opt out of marriage altogether has risen by 12% since the early 1980s. In Italy, the number of divorces has increased by 30% since 1990, and fertility rates have fallen to just 1.2 children per woman down from 1.7 children per woman more than 20 years ago and 2.4 in 1960. In the Netherlands, 23% of children are born out of wedlock. And in the Eastern bloc, out-of-wedlock births in Poland have almost doubled in the past 20 years, while in the Czech Republic, marriage rates have fallen by 23% over the last decade.
What's more, increasing numbers of Europeans are choosing not to have children at all, a trend that not only promises some sizable demographic shifts in the years ahead (with fewer younger people around to shoulder the cost of supporting their generational forebears) but also could cause a growing schism between parents and nonparents about how government money for social services is allocated. "It's an explosion waiting to happen," says Frank Furedi, a reader in sociology at the University of Kent, who is researching a book that, among other things, will explore the growing resentment childless couples have over what they see as preferential treatment for their child-rearing counterparts. It's a book that will surely find a ready audience in people like Tanya Lina. "Having a child is not the only way to contribute to the world," says the 34-year-old Dutch performing artist, who has lived with a man for 15 years but has elected to remain both unmarried and childless.
That's not to say the traditional family is completely dead and buried. In Great Britain, for example, around 65% of people with dependent children are married. But it's an idea that's fast losing ground. "Essentially, there is more diversity," says Kathleen Kiernan, a professor of social policy and demography at the London School of Economics. "More diversity, and more fragility."