37% of all children born in the United States are “illegitimate.” I use the now-banished term to emphasize the coincidence of our kinder, gentler linguistic habits and the devastating increase in “out-of-wedlock” births.
In 2005, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 1.5 million of the 4.1 million births in this country were to unmarried women—most in their 20s. Fifty years ago, when “illegitimacy” still existed as a social stigma, the number of children born without the benefit of married parents was about 5%. Apparently the progressive policy of social sensitivity hasn’t been a boon to those children for whom it was supposedly instituted.
Despite the rationalizations of 60s and 70s sociologists, it eventually became clear that what ails most children with one parent isn’t a social stigma, but rather the fact that they have only one parent—usually a mom. Unfortunately, our post-Murphy Brown society now casually accepts even the actions of terminally selfish women who deliberately deprive their children of a father—just as it casually ignores the consequences.
One study, for example, found that 90% of the rise in violent crime between 1973 and 1995 could be related to out-of-wedlock births. Another found that cohabitation is 10 times more prevalent now than in 1980, and that kids in these homes are twice as likely to see mom and dad split up than children whose parents have that “meaningless scrap of paper”—a marriage certificate. Indeed, fewer than half of cohabiting couples stay together more than five years—the typical duration being 18 months. Most depressingly, kids in these “test drive families” are vastly more likely to be abused. (See data at cwfa.org and at divorcereform.org.)
As these statistics show, the destigmatizing of America has coincided with the demoralization of America. Indeed, one has to tune in Dr. Laura to get a taste of the phrases most folks would have employed fifty years ago—“shack-up honey,” “unpaid whore,” and “do it for the kids.” (The last statement is perhaps the one that’s most despised today.)
It isn’t unusual for irresponsibility and selfishness to parade around in respectable linguistic garments. I’m confident that most of the effort to destigmatize illegitimacy arose not from a deep concern for the welfare of children but rather from an unstated desire to normalize promiscuity. The latter goal was quickly accomplished by substituting the term “sexually active” for the p-word and by illustrating, ad nauseam, the pain-free joys of extramarital sex on the boob tube.
No more does our tolerant culture make individuals feel bad about doing bad things. We’re more “mature” than our judgmental grandparents. Ignored is the other side of the equation—including the millions of unlucky kids whose egg- and sperm-donors take parenthood less seriously than driving an automobile. The latter activity, at least, requires a license.