Monday, January 7, 2008

Nonmarital Children

Up until the late sixties, it was legal to discriminate against children who were born to parents not married to each other. Such nomarital children were legally classified as "illegitimate", or commonly with the cruder term of "bastard", among other things. As late as the 1950s, children who were born out of wedlock had the word "illegitimate" stamped on their birth certificates and school records.

A unwed mother could have her child taken away from her and put up for adoption, simply because she wasn't married. Children that remained with their mothers could not recover debts owed to her, nor could mothers or children bring wrongful death suits if either had been killed through negligence. Such children also had little or no claim upon their fathers and no guarantee of support.

According to Stephanie Coontz in her book "Marriage, A History", "distinguishing between 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate' offspring had been critical throughout history. 'Illegitimacy' was how families protected themselves from having to share their power or property too widely. Politically, as long as claims to power descended through kinship, the very existence of state depended on the principle of 'legtimacy'." In other words, it was for practical, mercenary reasons, not any high-flown ideas of morality.

Coontz also wrote, "As early as the eighteenth century, humanitarians began complaining that the principle of legitimacy allowed a man to seduce and abandon a woman without taking any responsibility for the child he might have fathered. There was a growing sense that it was wrong to penalize children for the sins or misdeeds of their parents, but few countries took any action until the 1960s." People in the 18th century had sexual practices more in common with our own century than that of the Victorian era of the 19th century; there was quite a bit of nonmarital sex and out of wedlock births. And though not legally required to do so, many men of the time did take responsibility for their "natural children" (the polite term at the time) and raised them in their own households. Ben Franklin is an example of a man who did so.

Starting in 1968, a series of laws were passed that legally ended the second-class status of nonmarital children. In 1968, the Supreme Court, in Levy vs Louisiana, ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause applied to the children of parents not married to one another.

There are those today, who seemingly would welcome a return to the stigmatization of nonmarital children.

In an article that appeared in The National Review in 2002, Kate O'Beirne wrote that our society needs to "stigmatize unmarried sex and the irresponsibility of single mothers who risk damaging their children before giving birth; otherwise it would be unlikely that the number of 'illegitimate' children would be significantly reduced. If single mothers bore the social stigma of smokers, children would be far better off". I don't know about you, but I don't see how treating single mothers as second class citizens will help their children in any way.

Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma is of the opinion that divorce and out of wedlock births inevitably lead to drug abuse and violence. "You need to be judgmental and say that", he asserted.

Mike McManus , head of a group called Marriage Savers, refers to children born out of wedlock as "monsters".

In a recent campaign ad, Mitt Romney said, "Marriage must come before children. Every child deserves a mother and a father". Well, I don't know about where you went to school, Mitt, but my biology classes taught that all children have a mother and a father. And a marriage certificate is no guarantee that a father will stay to take responsibility for the children he sires, nor does it guarantee that he'll be a good father even if he does stay. Nor is the lack of a marriage license a guarantee that a father will head for the hills as soon as he learns he's to become a father. Laws that deal with the support of children should focus on how the parent relates to the child, to make sure each takes responsibility, and not so much on how they relate to each other.

I've always found the notion that any child could be "illegitimate" to be an offensive one. I remember getting into an argument with a distant relative about this several years ago. She was offended when I said there was no such thing as an "illegitimate" child, as nonmarital children had no say into the circumstances of their births. I went on to say that society might have considered the parents to be "illegitimate parents", which I also thought was wrong, but children in no way should ever be considered so.

A couple of years ago, a relative in her 30s got married. She freely admitted to her mother that he wasn't anything approaching her soulmate; that she willingly "settled". Why, you might ask? The answer was that she wanted to have kids before it was too late, so she got married for this purpose. I don't know about you, but I think that's a pretty piss poor basis for a marriage, especially if he's not in on the true reason she married him.

The push for the re-stigmatization of nonmarital children is directed mainly at poor people; the rich get a free pass for the most part, which they claim is "for the children", rather yet another attempt to legislate morality. Of course, if it's really about the children, it would seem to me that the more effective thing would be to combat poverty than to condemn single parents.


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