governments have a special name for the 1.4 million babies born
each year to unmarried parents in the United States and it isn't
"cute" or "darling" or "sweet."
An examination of judicial
rulings and statute books shows that judges in some 37 states
have been labeling these innocent children as "illegitimate"
while state statutes in 11 states have been throwing even more
mud by calling them "bastards."
The extent of
this problem is magnified when one considers that between 1940
and 2004 about 35 million births occurred to unmarried women.
Earlier this month a National Vital Statistics Report documented
that more than 34 percent of all births in the
United States were to unwed mothers in 2003, a percent very
similar to annual data for the past 10 years.
What is the
rationale for the name calling?
really be based in criminal law since laws against unmarried
sexual intercourse or unmarried cohabitation have generally been
limited to about a dozen states, and many of those have been
repealed or declared unconstitutional.
Is there a
biblical basis for the stigma?
That is a
distinct possibility since the Bible does proclaim that the sins
of the parents shall be visited upon their children. The
Book of Deuteronomy also
states that "a bastard shall not enter into the congregation of
the Lord; even to this tenth generation shall he not enter into
the congregation of the Lord."
But don't we
live in a secular society? Doesn't the Constitution
provide for the separation of church and state?
the origins of this distasteful practice of the government
branding children as "illegitimate" because of the marital
status of their parents, most people of good will should agree
that it is a bad habit. It seems that bad habits die hard.
There are two
schools of thought when it comes to law reform. Some folks
subscribe to the belief that "you can't fight city hall" while
others believe that "one person can make a difference."
of Wilmette, Illinois is one person who has made a big
difference in the legal status of hundreds of thousands of
fellow Illinois residents after she vowed to overturn the
illegitimacy statutes in her home state. During the past
10 years alone, about 64,000 babies a year were born to
unmarried Illinois mothers.
being born today have enough to deal with. Why label
them?" said Kahn, who explained she "went a little nuts" when
she first became aware that the term "illegitimate" was still
being used in state law. Who wouldn't get upset to learn
that legislators are picking on a child in your extended family?
the help Senator John Cullerton to carry the bill in the Senate and
Representative Karen May to introduce it in the House.
The bill struck all
references to "illegitimate children" in Illinois laws
concerning adoptions, divorces, and inheritance and replaces
those words with "children born out of wedlock."
seemed destined to have one "no" vote in the House of
Representatives from a legislator who thought the bill was a
waste of time, but Kahn worked on him and eventually it passed
both chambers unanimously. The governor signed it into law
in June of this year.
leadership and determination of Adrienne Kahn will encourage
advocates in other states to instigate similar reform measures.
Although Illinois is the most recent jurisdiction to stop the
name calling, a few others have eliminated negative terms in the
past few years.
A reform measure
surfaced in Delaware when Representative Helene Keeley
introduced a bill to remove the term "bastard" from state
codes. That bill passed and became law in 2001.
Elaine Fuller picked up the torch in Maine with a bill to remove
both "bastard" and "illegitimate" from state statutes. When
lawmakers could not agree on a substitute term for
"illegitimate," Fuller's bill was amended to eliminate only
"bastard" from state laws. The amended bill was enacted in
But even with
these small legislative gains, there is still a lot of work to
be done. For example, Louisiana's Civil Code declares that
generally speaking, belong to no family, and have no relations;
accordingly they are not submitted to the paternal authority,
even when they have been legally acknowledged."
It's too bad that
the winds of Hurricane Katrina did not rip that page right out
of the law books in the Louisiana state capitol.
Some may ask "what's the big deal?" These are just words, after
When it dealt with
this issue a few years ago, the Alaska Supreme Court found that
stigmatizing children is a big deal, concluding:
be designated as an illegitimate child in preadolescence is an
emotional trauma of lasting consequence."
As we are
more than halfway through the first decade of the new
millennium, one would hope that it will not take much longer to
see the name calling stopped in each and every state.
will go quicker if others step forward to push for reform in
their states. What these innocent children need is a few more
people in various parts of the country who, like Adrienne Kahn,
also believe they can make a difference.
Unmarried America 2005
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and