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Why Are We Still Calling Our Babies ‘Illegitimate?’

Earlier this week, ‘Blog Her’ posted an article by Christelyn D. Karazin titled “Why Doesn’t the Black Community Value Black Marriage?.” In it, Karazin, founder of the No Wedding, No Womb initiative and co-author of  Swirling:  How to Date, Mate and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture and Creed, heralds the concept of shotgun weddings (since they mean that the child the bride is carrying won’t be born ‘illegitimate’). She also asserts that white men are likelier to do the “honorable” thing and make sure their children are born within wedlock. In fact, she claims, blacks are the only racial group who aren’t willing to make an unplanned pregnancy their reason for marrying:

Here is another cultural difference that we just can’t ignore: while the out-of-wedlock rate is rising across the races, every other race EXCEPT for the black race values making babies within wedlock.

She cites the oft-quoted National Center for Health Statistics number–80 percent of firstborn children have unmarried moms–to prove her point. Since that’s an incendiary issue that has been discussed rather thoroughly elsewhere, and since the strange race-baiting, good-white-man-glorifying aspects of Karazin’s piece have also already been discussed, I’m not going to spend much time belaboring either of those points.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the idea, adopted by Karazin and many others, that children’s “legitimacy” is inextricably tied to their parents’ marriage.

Centuries ago, a legal judgment of illegitimacy and “bastardy” barred children with unmarried parents to any claim on their father’s inheritance and significantly lowered their social caste, per English Common Law. The practice continued here, in the colonial U.S. and ever since, there’s been a grave and particular social stigma attached to children born to unmarried parents. Legally, however, attitudes have evolved. Marriage is no longer necessary to legally establish a child’s paternity or to legitimize a child’s right to her father’s inheritance. Per the Uniform Parentage Act that many state and federal governments have adopted, any child whose paternity is legally established is “legitimate.”

As such, courts are trending away from using the language of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” in discussing children. But in our cultural communities, that’s a much harder sell. Almost without exception “illegitimate child” is used as a pejorative, a quick way of indicating that the child is somehow less acknowledged, less entitled, and less worthy than a child born to a married couple. But as Karazin’s piece seems to indicate, marriage alone can be a rather curious arbiter for determining “legitimacy,” particularly when it occurs as a direct result of impregnating a woman. Historically, society has referred to this as “doing the right thing,” but more recent studies have complicated that notion.

A 2007 Pew Research Study indicates:

Americans of all ages, this survey finds, acknowledge that there has been a distinct weakening of the link between marriage and parenthood. In perhaps the single most striking finding from the survey, just 41% of Americans now say that children are “very important” to a successful marriage, down sharply from the 65% who said this in a 1990 survey.

Indeed, children have fallen to eighth out of nine on a list of items that people associate with successful marriages — well behind “sharing household chores,” “good housing,” “adequate income,” “happy sexual relationship,” and “faithfulness.” Back in 1990, when the American public was given this same list on a World Values Survey, children ranked third in importance.

The study acknowledges that the majority of those polled believed unwed pregnancy was a major societal problem, but when children now factor second to last in wedded couples’ ranking of factors that lead to marital success, it stands to reason that being born to married parents alone doesn’t ensure that the marriage (and by extension, the parenting) will be happy or healthy or that the children will be more of a priority for the married parent than they will be for the unmarried one.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of using the term “illegitimate,” there’s no arguing that, although it’s colloquially used as a value judgment of the parents, it’s far more damaging to the child. So why are we still so intent on using it?


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