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Poll Shows Conflict On Unwed Motherhood

Sat., Sept. 21, 1996

The superheated debate over welfare reform has intertwined morality issues of unwed motherhood with issues of public policy. And in the view of some observers, the two are fundamentally different.

If you believe that children are best raised by two present parents, then you must conclude that any woman, rich or poor, old or young, is wrong to have a child on her own, says professor Stephen Carter, who teaches law and ethics at Yale Law School. And if you believe that marriage is a sacred institution that is the bedrock of a spiritual community, then you must conclude the same.

“Saying, ‘I have a right to do this’ is a complete legal defense, but it’s irrelevant as a moral defense,” Carter says. “One has to discuss morality apart from the discussion of rights. The fact I have a right to do something doesn’t change your right to criticize me for doing it.”

Such views are frequently espoused from church pulpits. But the nation’s mainstream religious establishments, like its political leaders, do not speak with one voice on the issue of out-of-wedlock births.

In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, Catholics were only slightly more likely than other respondents to state that out-of-wedlock births are always or almost always wrong. Non-Catholic Christians were just as ambivalent as the larger population of respondents. Only those people identifying themselves as white Christian fundamentalists showed a marked disapproval for out-of-wedlock births, with 68 percent considering such decisions always or almost always wrong.

“What you’d like to do ideally is to make a society in which people see this as a wrong choice,” says Barry Freudel, rabbi of the Georgetown Synagogue in Washington, D.C., and a member of an interfaith summit on fatherhood.

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