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24 November 2021

From the NS archive: The unmarried mother

6 March 1920: How the Bastardy Bill will better serve parents and children.

By Lens

The number of children born “out of wedlock” in England and Wales was in 1920 higher than it had been for half a century. The “condition” of being unmarried was troubling: a single woman faced twice the chance of death during childbirth than her married equivalent. Such women were not simply “vicious” or “feeble-minded”, this author understood. They supported a new bill, the “Bastardy Bill”, which sought to refrain from encouraging illegitimacy, while understanding that a policy of cruelty and deterrence was not helpful. “The mother is the best guardian of her child, and, as we usually forget, the child is the best guardian of its mother,” the author wrote. What’s more, if a baby is left with its mother, “and she is given a chance to care for it, she is far less likely to become the mother of another illegitimate infant and far more likely to become a useful and well-behaved member of society”. Fathers too had a responsibility to bear.


The recent statistical facts of illegitimacy as a social phenomenon in our country are as follows:

England and Wales:

Illegitimate births, 1918: 41,153
Infant mortality (legitimate), 1917: 90 per 1,000
Infant mortality (illegitimate), 1917: 201 per 1,000
Number of affiliation orders, 1913 (last normal year): 6,914 out of 37,909 births.

Since the legitimate birth-date tends steadily to fall (even last year’s, with a slight rise, being only three-fourths that in 1913 – 18 to 24 figures), and the illegitimate rate is maintained, evidently the proportion of the nation’s children born out of wedlock rises year by year. It is now higher than it has been for about half a century. I note in passing the high rate in Scotland and the signally low rate in Roman Catholic Ireland.

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Under widely varying circumstances the general rule steadily holds that the infantile death-rate is twice as high, or more, among illegitimate as legitimate babies. The figures given above are quite typical in that respect. There is also a much higher proportion of still births – less to be regretted. We commonly forget, however, the terribly high mortality of the unmarried mother at childbirth. We may consider that, approximately, her chances of death are doubled by her condition, like those of her infant. As regards the latter, doubtless a much higher incidence of syphilitic infection should be remembered, as well as the more obvious factor of neglect, often homicidal in essence.

Altogether, illegitimacy thus presents a deplorable social fact the importance of which is tending to increase, and the racial significance of which must be faced in these days of the falling birth-rate. Our first duty is to study it. An American book of “The Unmarried Mother” was the subject of an article in this journal two years or so ago, from the pen of Dr Havelock Ellis. Assuredly, the unmarried mother cannot be described as always “vicious”, or always “simple” or “feeble-minded.” She belongs to many different types, and the task of prevention must be approached accordingly. It may with some confidence be said, however, that the unmarried mother, as we have to deal with her in this country, is much more often a girl whom we must rightly call “good”, than of the vicious and skilful type, who has nothing to learn on the subject of contraception. The modern widespread knowledge of that practice has resulted in a statistical modification of the type of married girl who does become a mother.

The present moment is appropriate for returning to the study of this subject, in view of legislative possibilities. There was recently formed a National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child (62 Oxford Street, W.) of which Lord Henry Bentinck is President, and Mrs HAL Fisher is Chairman, whilst the list of vice-presidents excludes any idea that the Council is indulgent or easy-going towards sexual immorality. It has already awakened interest in the subject, and held a meeting at the Mansion House some time ago, thanks to the courage of the then Lord Mayor, who was most copiously abused thereafter by the “unco’ guid”. The Council is now promoting a bill, “The Bastardy Bill, 1920” which may have been somewhat successful in the ballot and may receive Parliamentary attention ere long. Can we define the sociological principles to which legislation should conform, and determine whether this Bill seeks to do so? I think we can.

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First, we must refrain from encouraging illegitimacy. Mr. Harold Cox, publicly animadverting, some time ago, upon evidence on this subject given before the National Birth-rate Commission, described certain proposals – not in the Bill now under consideration – as for the care-free public endowment of bastards. I cannot believe that any honest student of the present proposals will regard them as encouraging illegitimacy. On the contrary, I repeat the argument submitted to the Mansion House meeting that the humane policy of the N.C.U.M.C. is likely to be much more genuinely preventive than the “deterrent” policy hitherto pursued. For whilst our policy of cruelty and deterrence has no demonstrable record as a preventive, it most certainly kills hosts of unmarried mothers and their children. Whilst illegitimacy increases in spite of it, crime is unquestionably produced by it, as the official reports of cases of infanticide daily demonstrate.

For every biologist the natural and cardinal principle, in dealing with these cases, is to help the mother and the child together. Of course, there are obvious exceptions, as when the mother is feeble-minded, syphilitic, or in an advanced and “open” stage of pulmonary tuberculosis, which involves risk of infection to her infant. But, otherwise, the mother is the best guardian of her child, and, as we usually forget, the child is the best guardian of its mother. In Professor E.W. Hope’s report on infant mortality in England and Wales, made for and published by the Carnegie Trustees, it is recorded that those infants in the Moscow Foundlings Hospital whose own mothers enter the institution and nurse them, have half the death-rate of those, also breast-fed, who are nursed by foster-mothers. Dr. Eric Pritchard brought before the National Birth-rate Commission, last year, an original explanation, in part, of this and similar figures. Briefly, it is that an infant derives, from its mother’s blood before birth, immunising agents which the mother has made for her own self-protection against the particular bacteria that have invaded her. Those are the very bacteria which the mother, carrying them, is liable to pass on to her infant; but, being her infant, it is supplied already with the means of protection which she has made. Another mother, carrying a different collection of “flora,” would very probably infect that infant which had had no opportunity of obtaining means of protection.

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That is the finding of bacteriology on behalf of the infant; but no less valuable is the fouling of sociology on behalf of the mother – to the effect that, if the baby is left with her, and she is given a chance to care for it, she is far less likely to become the mother of another illegitimate infant and far more likely to become a useful and well-behaved member of society. That is the ground on which I declare that the deterrent method actually causes cases of illegitimacy which the humane method would and will prevent.

Thanks to our present methods, and to the Bastardy Laws, which have undergone no substantial change since 1873, it is clear that the great majority of illegitimate children are kept fatherless, nearly 8,000 a year find an early death, and there is an amount of undeserved suffering – of all the infants and many mothers – which cannot be estimated in statistics.

The new Bill may fairly be described as follows:

1. It divides the responsibility of parenthood as equally as possible between both parents.
2. It provides for the guardianship of illegitimate children whose parents, either one or both, are individually unfit for any reason to assume the responsibility of guardianship.
3. It throws on the State the responsibility for establishing paternity, and for the enforcement of Affiliation Orders, by measures which have proved effective in other countries.
4. When paternity is admitted, permanent arrangements, in the interests of the child, can be made without publicity to either parent.
5. The financial provision is left to the Court, so that it may be allocated in accordance with the financial position of both parents.
6. It gives the right to legitimation on the marriage of the parents – as in Scotland and, I think, every civilised country in the world except this.

The Bill thus increases the responsibility of fatherhood, helps the helpless mother and saves the child, which secures the right to a father, the right to maintenance, the right to guardianship and the right to legitimation if its parents subsequently marry. The State, by its collecting office, obtains the money required from the father – in supersession of the present odious plan, whereby the hapless mother must obtain it herself, being thus exposed to his advances. Some interference with the right of the mother to conceal her trouble is suggested, but it will be for the ultimate benefit of the mother, the child and the State. Concealment leads to death, disease and suffering for both mother and child, and to loss or damage of future citizens by the State. The Bill provides further that a single woman may obtain from the father of her child a contribution towards the expenses of her confinement if she institutes proceedings in time.

I count it a high privilege to submit these facts to the reader, hoping thereby to aid in ending the long ages of cruelty and injustice and destruction of which my sex is guilty against the helpless and the innocent.

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