Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Quote From What I'm Reading: The Sins of the Fathers

I am continuing to read a book I have referenced here on my blog several times,"The Sins of the Fathers: The Law and Theology of Illegitimacy Reconsidered."  It is a information-packed read, but one I would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about adoption history.  The book is not about adoption; it is about the history of church views on illegitimacy vs. the state's views of illegitimacy, as they would pertain to the formation of the view of illegitimacy held in the United States.  Witte covers Biblical views of illegitimacy, Roman Law, church law, English Law, and more, and how church and state views have intertwined throughout history.

Why is it a good tool in understanding the history of adoption?  The categorization of both legitimate and illegitimate individuals and thus the resulting disbursement of inheritance, as well as the consequences dealt to the parents and the resulting children, in addition to the lack of support for those in need, created situations where children needed to be cared for by others.  Indeed, to understand adoption's history, one must be aware of what has lead children to be adopted in the first place, and illegitimacy is very much a part of that.  

Adoption, in Roman law and Medieval canon law, was seen to legitimize children.  The English common law rejected the legitimization of children by adoption; neither did the early American law which was based upon the English common law.  Adoption was one of the law changes in the United States that provided for the legitimization of  illegitimate children seen to both legitimize the child as well as provide an heir for a couple with no children.

The book is an interesting read.  While I benefited from the knowledge of legal and religious history it provided, I disagreed with a lot of the conclusions of the book.  Namely, that illegitimate birth is the root of problems and that adoption will solve those problems as well as should be promoted as an alternative to abortion.

The quote:
"American law slowly drew the sting and stigma from traditional common law of illegitimacy.  Illegitimacy laws still remain on the books today, but they have been reduced to dead or dying letters in most American states.  The rights and best interests of the child, regardless of its birth status, are now the dominant legal logic respecting all children" (Witte, 2009, p. 135).
While not mentioned in the book but something many of us born in the U.S. are very aware of, our birth certificates were initially amended and sealed largely to hide the "illegitimate" labels once placed on the birth certificates of individuals born out of wedlock.  While many of the laws of illegitimacy have lost their power, adult adoptees are still being made to go through enormous lengths just to have access to birth documentation, based on these antiquated laws.  Have the laws of illegitimacy really lost their sting and impact?

Reference:
Witte, J., (2009). The Sins of the Fathers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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