Start the Debate: Language, Legitimacy and a 'Love Child'

My parents weren't married, and so I took special interest when listeners of a recent Weekend Edition Saturday report complained when two children of Prince Albert of Monaco were described as "illegitimate."

"I would suggest that this language is no longer acceptable," Sigmund Roos of Concord, MA, wrote. "I am the parent of two adopted children, both born to unmarried parents. I understand the origin of this word, but I think that it implies a cultural value that no longer has any currency, and can be seen as insensitive—or even—offensive."

Pejorative birth labels attached to children were never fair, but may have been defensible—or at least acceptable—under once-dominant religious and traditional family values. And as Roos suggests, the news media do reflect a society's values.

But given that 41 percent of the children born in the United States in 2009 had unmarried parents, according to a preliminary report by the federal government, and that the proportion continues to grow in a long term trend here and in Europe, media tags such as "illegitimate," or "love child" or "born out of wedlock" now seem out of step.

This is especially so given that it is the educated middle class, perhaps the most influential arbiter of American values, that is leading the change that—I think it is safe to say—has made all sorts of alternative family and birth arrangements acceptable to society at large, if not in everyone's eyes. The arrangements, in other words, can no longer be dismissed as aberrations among the poor and the rich. Whether these arrangements are wise or not is another matter, one that each of us will decide for ourselves.

I am too old to take the labels personally. My own parents were unable to overcome religious and class differences. Meeting amidst the economic boom and free-thinking tumult of the Panama Canal following World War II, my mother was a little-educated Catholic nurse's assistant from Colombia and my father was a well-to-do Jewish merchant from Palestine and France. In a story reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marques' Love in the Time of Cholera , however, they reunited four decades later and lived the last years of my father's life together in Panama and New York. I guess that makes me a love child.

Still, I shared the revulsion of many Americans over much of the news coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger and what was gleefully described as his "love child." Much ado was made about protecting the privacy of Schwarzenegger's children with his wife Maria Shriver—the "legitimate" children—which I agreed with, though it seemed to me that the child who most needed protection was the "illegitimate" one born to the former maid. Little concern was shown for him.

NPR doesn't have a policy on what terminology to use, according to Executive Editor Dick Meyer. Nor does PBS or is one found in the Associated Press Stylebook used by most of the mainstream media.

To their credit, most NPR reporters and editors seem to have avoided tarring the children in many of the latest scandals du jour. A rough search on the phrase "illegitimate child" found that it had been used a dozen or so times back to the year 2000. "Love child" crept in from time to time, as did "out of wedlock," for example in reference to the child born to former presidential candidate John Edwards and a campaign worker. Most references on NPR avoided labels and simply said "child."

There was particular irony in the wedding story two weeks ago about the Prince of Monaco. The reporter, Eleanor Beardsley, wrote to me: "I totally agree with (Roos, the Concord listener). I think I was trying to avoid saying out of wedlock. So what should one say? I'm laughing to myself, because I was unmarried when my own son was born! Ha. I didn't even think about that."

This seems a perfect opportunity to ask listeners and readers what policy you would have NPR adopt. The newsroom is welcome to join in, too.

Before responding, you might want to read this good story in Slate by the clear-eyed writer Katie Roiphe about the etymology of "love child." It also includes a cultural bias, however. "Legitimacy" in the Latin American world in which I was born depends on whether your father legally recognizes you, not whether your parents were married. This raises the question of whether NPR and the press should distinguish among the children of different types of relationships.

You might also read the powerful stories of nine pregnant women currently running in a series called The Baby Project on NPR.org.

In recommending language, please feel free to consider the consequences of the media's terminology on society, the child and the mother. Some journalists protest that they are not responsible for the consequences of what they report and write, but it is only foolish ones who say that.

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