The view that
illegitimacy was a significant
threat to the health and welfare of newborns was pervasive among
Progressive reformers, who believed that the answer to this problem
rested with research and state action. They recommended birth registration
procedures and more accurate statistical
data. This letter from Lewis Meriam, Assistant Chief of the U.S.
Children’s Bureau, was directed to Hastings Hart of the
Russell Sage Foundation, a well known figure in the world of child
welfare during the early twentieth century. Meriam’s opinion
that birth certificates should record parents’ marital status,
but that legitimacy status should be kept confidential, “except
where it is essential,” anticipated record-keeping practices
that sealed original birth
certificates and substituted new ones after adoptions were finalized.
What they had in common was appreciation for the stigma that illegitimate
and adopted children faced and advocacy of government policies that
would simultaneously increase knowledge about these children and
protect them from harm.
My dear Dr. Hart,
. . . . The registration records should, I
believe, indicate the fact that the parents of the child are not
married. Birth registration has two principal values: it notifies
the authorities of the birth of a child, enabling them to bring
to bear, in those cases where it seems necessary, such community
forces as are at their disposal for promoting the welfare of the
infant, and it furnishes the basis for the infant mortality rate
which is a barometer indicating social and economic conditions.
The fact that the baby is born to an unmarried mother is, in itself,
an indication that the baby is subject to a risk of death far greater
than that to which a baby born to a married mother is subject. The
record of illegitimacy is a red flag to the infant welfare worker,
indicating peculiar need for such assistance as the community is
in a position to give. In time, too, it may be possible to develop
a system whereby the registration of an illegitimate birth may be
made the act that puts in motion suitable legal machinery to enforce
the responsibility of both mother and father so that there may be
as little difference as possible between the economic and social
position of the legitimate and the illegitimate offsprings of the
same general classes.
Statistics of illegitimacy by city districts and by rural districts
may be made of great service in disclosing areas of peculiarly bad
social conditions. The figures contrasting the alley districts and
the street districts of Washington are striking. If it can be demonstrated
that a large percentage of the illegitimacy of a community is contributed
by a comparatively small number of districts, the practical remedies
for the conditions in these areas can be found by intensive studies.
For practical social engineering, then, the figures regarding illegitimacy
would have great value.
I believe it is practicable to secure the registration of illegitimate
births, though it is no doubt difficult. If the proper authorities
prosecute all physicians, midwives, and other attendants who fail
to register births, and utilize all the means that they have for
detecting such failures, practically all births would be registered,—illegitimate
as well as legitimate. . . .
The certificates of birth can well be the same for legitimate and
illegitimate children with an arrangement whereby legitimate or
illegitimate may be checked as the case may be. What data should
be recorded regarding the putative father of an illegitimate child
is one that has roused a good deal of discussion and has not yet
brought any general agreement. . . .
Provision should, I think, be made whereby the fact of legitimacy
or illegitimacy shall not be disclosed except where it is essential.
Copies of the original certificate for use in connection with school
attendance or child labor laws should not disclose the record regarding
legitimacy. . . .
Very sincerely yours,