Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

September 26, 2005



Name calling: how one person can make a difference

by Thomas F. Coleman
Most state 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?

It can't 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intercourse or unmarried cohabitation have generally been limited to about a dozen states, and many of those have been repealed or declared unconstitutional.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?

One would hope so.

Regardless of 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."

Adrienne Kahn 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.

"Children 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?

Kahn enlisted 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."

The measure 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.

Perhaps the 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.

Representative 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 2001.

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 "Illegitimate children 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 all.

When it dealt with this issue a few years ago, the Alaska Supreme Court found that stigmatizing children is a big deal, concluding: "To 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.

The process 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 America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.