Kaksi henkilöä istuu laiturilla. / Two people sitting on a pier.

Diversifying and differentiating family formation – same-sex couples as an example

The opportunities for same-sex couples to have children have improved in recent years in Finland. However, the new opportunities are not equally accessible to all same-sex couples.

One of the aims of the Family Formation in Flux – Causes, Consequences and Possible Futures (FLUX) consortium project is to provide insights into the linkages of fertility and family dynamics with social and gender inequalities and psychosocial and economic well-being. We recognize a new kind of diversity in desires regarding family formation, alternative paths to starting a family, family compositions, and arrangements of family life.

Although diversity is largely due to instability, such as high rates of partnership dissolution, and unmet desires regarding family formation, it also reflects increasing possibilities of family formation for groups of people for whom it was previously impossible or extremely difficult.

One of the groups is same-sex couples, for whom legal changes during the past few decades have made, for instance, marriage and sharing juridical parenthood of a child possible in Finland. Even if a same-sex couple with children is not a new family form per se, the need to understand prevailing challenges and inequalities in couples’ chances of fulfilling their desires for parenthood has intensified with the legal changes.

The new opportunities have not been equally accessible to all same-sex couples. For example, male couples’ opportunities to have children together are significantly lower than female couples due to female couples’ better opportunities to take advantage of the available methods of childbearing.

Large differences in female same-sex couples’ fertility between educational groups

We used Finnish register data to explore educational differences in childbearing among female same-sex couples who registered their partnerships in Finland in 2006–2015. During this period, female couples got a legal right to medically assisted reproduction in 2007 and to second-parent adoption in 2009. We could study only female couples because the number of male couples who have a child is too low to be included in a register-based study.

We found that female couples’ likelihood of having a child within the first five years of their registered partnership had increased from 34 percent to 43 percent when couples who registered their partnership between 2006–2010 and 2011–2015 were compared. It seems reasonable to assume that the observed increase reflects the legislative changes that have decreased same-sex couples’ barriers to fulfilling their parental intentions. With these changes, female couples’ fertility behavior seems to have developed in the opposite direction as compared with general childbearing patterns in Finland, where overall fertility began to decline over the same period.

However, a closer examination of female couples’ childbearing by educational groups reveals large differences between the couples. While the likelihood of having a child increased from 39 percent to 52 percent among highly educated couples, the likelihood remained almost unchanged among couples with medium education, and it decreased from 26% to 8% among couples with low education.

Thus, socioeconomic status seems to have become an increasingly significant factor in female couples’ childbearing. This finding is reminiscent of the broader development of family formation in Finland where highly educated are most likely to meet their desires for parenthood, while lifetime childlessness is more common among lower educated persons.

From creating opportunities to removing barriers

We find it possible that the observed growing educational differentiation in childbearing driven by highly educated couples mainly reflects their better possibilities for taking advantage of new opportunities for childbearing. There might be several mechanisms operating between educational level and childbearing, but one key factor is probably financial resources gained through a higher level of education. During our study period, female couples received assisted fertility treatments only at private clinics where the costs of treatments can rise to several thousand or tens of thousands of euros.

It is interesting to see how the availability of the public health sector’s more affordable fertility treatments since the end of 2019 affects educational differences in female couples’ childbearing. However, couples may avoid long queues for the public sector’s treatments and get more treatment cycles by paying for treatments in the private sector.

Legal recognition of same-sex couples’ family rights has slowly progressed in a positive direction in Finland, which enables more and more attention to be paid to the inequality of opportunities for family formation between same-sex couples. It is important to try to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of family formation for people in different life situations, both through legislation and, for example, the allocation of resources and the elimination of all kinds of discrimination.

Whether one feels that one’s kind of family life is socially accepted can have a significant impact on whether one dares to even dream of starting a family.


More information:

Ponkilainen, M., Einiö, E., Pietiläinen, M. & Myrskylä, M. (2022). Educational differences in fertility among female same-sex couples. INVEST Working papers 60/2022, FLUX 9/2022.


Maria Ponkilainen Doctoral researcher
University of Helsinki