In a prior post, I demonstrated that the law makes explicit distinctions between marital and nonmarital children and denies the latter benefits automatically granted to its marital counterparts. The harms resulting from the law’s continued distinctions on the basis of birth status are significant. For example, these distinctions impair nonmarital children’s ability to acquire property and wealth. While individuals often use part of their inheritance for a down payment on a home, to start a business, or to fund their own children’s education, nonmarital children are denied the same access to intergenerational wealth.
These legal distinctions may also stigmatize nonmarital children. Denying nonmarital children access to post-secondary educational support that is granted to marital children suggests that the former are less deserving of support. It also signals that fathers’ responsibilities to their children differ depending on whether they are marital or nonmarital. Denying U.S. citizenship to the children of unmarried fathers unless their fathers expressly agreed to support them similarly signals that nonmarital children are not automatically entitled to support.
These legal distinctions also facilitate societal discrimination by encouraging individuals (either intentionally or otherwise) to make negative assumptions about unmarried parents and their children. Many Americans (not just former Gov. Mike Huckabee) believe that it is wrong for unmarried persons to have children. Seventy-one percent of participants in a recent Pew Research Center study indicated that the increase in nonmarital births is a “big problem” for society and 44% believe that it is always or almost always morally wrong for an unmarried woman to have a child. Some people assume that unmarried mothers are sexually irresponsible and that their children will be burdens on the public purse. They also expect nonmarital children to underachieve academically, economically, and socially.