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?

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

Photo credit:  jscreationzs


Von said...

I believe it is just as stigmatising as it ever was.

Reena said...

Thanks Amanda,

This is pretty much the reason I had thought that OBC were sealed-- to protec the child from the stigma of being illegitimate (as if the child had anything to do with it). As sad as it is, people were stigmatized in such way and the sealing of OBC was a protective measure. Times have changed-- at least I think they have.

You really don't hear people talking about a child being illegitimate anymore-- the marital status is not longer a big issue for most people. Plenty of single women choose to become PG or adopt and plenty of couples choose to have children without the 'sanctity' of marriage.

It seems that maintaining sealed OBC is one of the last stings of the laws of legitimacy and it really isn't needed.

Lori said...

I don't believe illegitimacy has very much power anymore. I find it interesting that you missed the ancient Celtic and Native American beliefs. Legitimacy was only defined as the child of the mother, not of the father. The inheritance came from the mother and not from the father. Ancient Rome allowed that women owned property, could create inheritance, etc., however, with the beginnings of the church, while they still retained property and monetary rights, the child could not inherit from the mother, unless it was a girl and the inheritance was made in the form of a dowry. A man that squandered his wife's property could be punished severly for his foolishness. This particular form of "inheritance" was transferred to ancient England and surrounding areas which is why the Irish had, until recently, a dowry system. The new bride inherited from their mothers. The Jewish tradition states that any man could have been the father, but only one woman was the mother. Until modern times and possibly even now, the only way to be considered Jewish is to be born to a Jewish mother.

It is sad that we put emphasis on the father, who can be just about anyone, and detract from the mother...who can only be one person.

veggiemom said...

I hate the term "illegitimate". It puts the onus of being born out of wedlock on the child instead of on the parents. (This mirrors my feelings on the term "natural" as it relates to first parents - to me it seems to put the onus of adoption on the child and not on the parent/s who made the decision to relinquish the child.) I also don't see having children outside of marriage as inherently problematic. It is much better for children to have commited parents but whether they're married or not, in my mind, doesn't matter.

Unknown said...

Please please please Everyone re "our birth certificates were initially amended and sealed" - NO! We were and are still given amended birth certificates BUT Initially our original birth certificates were available to us as Adults. Initially we had the same civil rights as all other adult American citizens.

Unknown said...

Ten Stars and a big Thumbs Up sign for Lori...

Amanda Woolston said...

I agree Von. The stigmas have not gone any where or have just been slightly changed to adapt to changing times.

Reena, I agree but what I too often see now is that the problems sexism, racism, and other "isms" cause are all often blamed on illegitimacy and single motherhood in the U.S. The author of this book does that very thing in his last chapter (I was floored!). I have heard the word "bastard" still being used as an insult or joke (I do think it's different when the community of people impacted by perpetual laws and stigmas of bastardy use it than when others do) and the general public, who has no idea how so many children have suffered because of the nature of their birth throughout history, still think it's something funny to say :-( .

Lori, I only mentioned the views of illegitimacy that were mentioned in the book. The author mentioned that there were other views and laws but he had only chosen to cover what he felt specifically shaped American policy. I'd like to learn more about other views from other cultures as well though.

He did a good job covering Rome and the changing Roman laws on illegitimacy as it became more and more "Christianized." It's sad to say that they treated mothers and children even worse as more religious influence became accepted by Roman leaders.

In some laws/states/cases, the old term used was "natural" for original mothers. The biological/birth labels arose later which many people felt sounded too technical or diminishing of the original family. I do say "natural" sometimes just because "natural" seems less technical than "biological." What I found interesting in the book was how the term "natural" has been historically used way, way back in history. "Natural" children were one class of illegitimates who could be legitimized. Other classes of "illegitimates" could not be, and were seen as "the children of no one" (filius populi). Had I been born centuries & centuries ago, I would not have been in the class of "natural" illegitimates.

How people were labeled and treated just boggles my mind.

I am continuing on to read Wake Up Little Susie which is also about illegitimacy and the punishment dealt to mothers in the 50's and 60's for bearing "illegitimate" children.

Amanda Woolston said...

ps. thank you all for commenting. You are awesome!

Unknown said...

what is it to say something or someone is illegitimate? How can a new born child be "not legitimate; not sanctioned by law or custom"? The union that created the child may not be sanctioned by law but the child had no part in that union. Lables are used, just like gossip and religion, by people who can only feel good about themselves if they can denigrate someone else. When someone has to denigrate an infant/child or Mother then that really speaks abundantly about they themselves.

Amanda Woolston said...

Cully, they were originally sealed--from the general public, to hide the "illegitimate" and "bastard" labels they carried. They became sealed, again, to the Adult Adoptee as influenced by a movement of Adoptive Parents (*some* not all, wanted the OBCs unavailable) and Adoption Workers.

It was sealing them from the public because of illegitimacy that laid the ground work for others to petition for them to become sealed off to the Adult Adoptee themselves.

e.g. Pennsylvania, OBCs were sealed in the 30's to hide illegitimate labels which PA still put on birth certificates until the 70's. OBCs weren't sealed from the Adult Adoptee's eyes until 1984.

Campbell said...

Saying stigmas are not gone or have only been slightly changed in "America" is surprising to me.

There are all sorts of instances that are proof there is little to zero stigma in being an "unwed" mother. Television programs about teens parenting, grandparents raising their grandkids right along side their kids, or alone. Same sex couples adopting, single parents intentionally having kids by donor, surrogate mothers etc.

The mother of an unwed mother could very possibly run for President of the USA....

Stigma isn't gone? Hmm

Amanda Woolston said...

Campbell, I agree that there are a number of instances that one can name where it would appear that the stigma is gone or at least lessened.

But this is not the sentiment every one feels or that every community in the U.S. perpetuates. Especially when households headed by single females are the most likely in the U.S. to live in poverty....I can't help but draw the conclusion that stigma isn't at least part of the problem giving contribution to the lack of focus on women's needs.

For example, I grew up in a very conservative, Christian community, graduating from high school 7 years ago. Pregnant girls were expelled from my school; the fathers, to my recollection, were not. These girls could not come as dates and guests of their classmates to school functions because they would be visibly pregnant sitting up front. They had to sit in the back. Two years ago, an unwed couple was asked to apologize to my home church's elders for having sex and getting pregnant without being married.

I also see a lot of adoption cliches and stereotypes as really being nothing more than negative assumptions made about unwed, young mothers.

Then there's the scapgoating of unmarried mothers for a wide variety of society's problems as seen in the article by an author and "researcher" that I linked to a week or two ago. Dr. Witte came to similar conclusions in his book: that birthing children out of wedlock is contributing to society's problems.

LGBT adoption is not permitted in every state. Some states that allow it might not allow the individual to adopt jointly with a partner. I believe there are still states left (Arkansas and Floriday being two of them--I believe) that will not allow any one who is not married to foster or adopt, regardless of sexual orientation.

Amanda Woolston said...

oops, sorry for the typos. My browser is being very slow in blogger today for some reason.