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During the Middle Ages, children born out of wedlock were often abandoned to the church or left to the streets and the kindness of strangers. In Latin they were termed expositi –the exposed ones. The skyrocketing rate of illegitimate births in America today, unprecedented in human history, has vastly deepened many of our social problems. The kindness of strangers must still be insisted upon, but is no solution. Government subsidy has proven to be an illusory measure as well.

Our remaining choices seem stark–abortion, or marriage. And here the debate divides. One action sacrifices the child on behalf of the mother’s freedom. The other limits the mother’s freedom, but saves the child. Here we should examine the matter most carefully. The aborted child is truly dead. We should look more closely at the institution of marriage as the solution to our woes.

Politicians are committed to reforming welfare, since most now perceive the injury that it does to society. But many insist that any attempt to “fix” welfare without confronting illegitimacy is either a fool’s errand or a retreat from cold facts. Illegitimate birth to young, unwed females is the driving force behind American social decay. It is the engine that powers a system of reproduction–the reproduction of crime, school failure, drug and sexual abuse, and tenacious poverty. The rejection of marriage impairs the mother’s future, the child’s well being, and the community’s moral and economic fabric.

Fiscal reformers and social critics might well find common ground on this issue. Illegitimacy has many implications–for property and authority, for social capital and community formation, and for moral commitment. The marital union, the premier contract of civil society and the elementary builder of community, is the precise point where two realms coincide and reinforce–the economic sphere of prosperity and the cultural sphere of values. Where better do children encounter citizenship enacted than in marriage?

To deny state aid to unwed mothers, some argue, is to infringe upon a woman’s “reproductive freedom.” But from the point of view of my discipline, social anthropology, this is an error. Through this error both mother and child are made dependent and vulnerable, and too often condemned to reproduce their tragedy down the generations. A cross-cultural examination of the function of marriage in human societies establishes a hard fact: illegitimacy makes a mockery of both reproduction and freedom. Illegitimacy produces injustice for those who must live it, and for those expected to subsidize it.

Much confusion exists about the term illegitimacy, which has more than sexual implications. A regime, for instance, may be illegitimate if its power is wielded without the sanction of law. So likewise is reproduction illegitimate if it falls outside the structure of marriage. It is not the human worth of the child that is being challenged, but rather the failure of the parents to ensure the child’s rights to a social estate in life. And when illegitimacy spreads, the orderliness of society is threatened.

In fact, what appears on the surface to be an expression of moral license–to bear offspring as the result of individual preference–produces in practice a ratchet for the disruption of freedom. Illegitimacy results in the state paternity of every “unit” born, and therefore inclines towards the nationalizing of the most private of industries, human reproduction.

These are the structural features of the practice. But what about the well-being of the parties involved–the human facts of unwed, single parenthood? The dismal outcome may be seen first in economic terms. According to the most recent Census Bureau report on poverty, the median household income for women householders with no husband present is $19,872, making this the majority structural arrangement found in poverty. For black Americans, the situation is worse, with the median single parent household, now 48 percent of all black families, receiving less than $12,000 per year. Married white family households, in contrast, have a median income of $45,041 , while married black households stand at $44,987. These data show compelling evidence that race is not the central factor in poverty.

And what are the social costs? According to data from The Fatherhood Initiative, the impact of illegitimacy is staggering. Over 60% of rapists, 72% of adolescent murderers, and 70% of long-term prison inmates grew up without fathers. A full 70% of juveniles in state reform institutions come from single parent homes. Of those who went on to become adult criminals, 80% grew up in single parent families. School performance is likewise affected. Only 4.4% of children who live with both parents are expelled or suspended from school, but 15.5% of children of a single mother will be expelled or suspended.

Most disturbing of all is the striking correlation between single-parenthood and high American infant mortality, which may be taken as an index of the multiple failures and challenges facing the child of illegitimacy. Recent data show an instructive pattern.

Infant mortality rates are not comparable across racial groups. In 1994, the mortality rate for black infants was 16.5 per 1,000 births, contrasted with 6.9 per 1,000 for whites. The standard response is to note the role of poverty and racism in accounting for this disparity. But they are inadequate as variables. Chinese-American infant mortality, for instance, is only 4.8 per 1,000, demonstrating that racial minority status is not the principle social determinant. Even more striking, however, are poverty statistics, where we find an impact on mortality that is counter-intuitive. And the evidence is increasing that the most important variable affecting a child’s well-being is the presence of a marital bond. Harvard demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has shown that the mother, whether black or white, who is well-off economically but unwed, exposes her child to greater risk of early death than does the poor, uneducated, but married mother.

When these facts were presented at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative economist Herbert Stein expressed doubt. How, he wondered, could the simple matter of having a husband in the house possibly affect so many fundamental facts, especially a child’s life- expectancy? The answer lies in understanding what in my discipline is termed the “domestic cycle of reproductive groups”–that is, we must see families across the generations, and not at just one point in time. Domestic groups must be seen as forming, maturing, breaking up, and then reforming in a ceaseless process down the generations. Marriage, a crucial component in the reproduction of domestic groups, is a linchpin in the well-being of the unit formed.

The key to Herbert Stein’s puzzle is to grasp the model of social reproduction created by illegitimacy. The single mother, with or without boyfriends and state support, bears children, male and female. For the boys, too readily the absent father is replaced by the authority of the gang, and they enter the self-socializing society of the Lord of the Flies. For the girls, at earliest nubility comes predation by older males, undeterred by a resident father who would protect her honor and her safety. This reality has received recent corroboration from an Alan Guttmacher Institute report on teenage sexuality, which showed that large numbers of teenage pregnancies result from coercive relationships with adult, unwanted male partners.

The girl may likely become pregnant at an early age, for complex motives that rarely involve her “reproductive freedom.” At this point several negative chains begin to link. Obviously, her schooling may be disrupted. This has a doubly negative aspect, since mother’s education has been shown to be factor in a child’s prenatal care and later health. Interrupted schooling also makes the mother less employable, trapping her in poverty and dependency.

For the baby that she now carries, the risks begin to accelerate. Since a young mother is still physically developing, the child may suffer low birth-weight, the strongest factor in early mortality. Being an adolescent, she is unlikely to nurse and nurture the infant sufficiently. Being sexually vulnerable, she may once again bear another child in quick succession. Both birth spacing and breast-feeding feature significantly in infant mortality. Further, being unsupervised, she may abuse drugs and alcohol while carrying the child, and may be inattentive or uninformed concerning infant vaccination or educational enrichment. Finally, the burden of being solitary produces exhaustion and frustration, which may strain emotional ties.

For the child who survives, there is now a greater risk of mental and physical impairment in later life. For the child of illegitimacy, thus hobbled from the start, the challenge of life is daunting. The illegitimate child is deeply at risk, susceptible to school and employment failure, and the early criminality and alienation they predispose.

What is the link, then, between illegitimacy and infant mortality? It is not that marriage is some magic talisman, but rather that it shapes the behaviors of reproduction across generations. It is the behavior of the young mother that, in the most complete analysis, is the critical variable, more important than race or poverty in the future of the child. What matter most are two things–what she does, and what is done to her by others, at critical moments in her reproductive life. Marriage produces patterns of protection for her and her infant that, while not flawless, are superior to unwed reproduction. Worldwide, millennia of successful human reproduction attest to this fact.

The moral dimension of the child’s life is also affected. Having never learned marital commitment, nor the daily tasks and rewards of husband and wife, the child of illegitimacy acquires no model for their later enactment. They are themselves likely to produce children out of wedlock. Having experienced over the generations an exponential collapse of the legitimate kinship network, households of the illegitimate accumulate no “dowry” of skills and potential with which to contract future stable unions. Thus, the cycle is condemned to repeat, and the pattern begins to colonize the wider society.

With a marriage, however, comes the uniting of families, the sanctioning pressures of in-laws, and the opportunities for jobs and loans and simple succor provided by the network of kinsmen. In fact, the sociologist William Julius Wilson has shown the striking importance of kinship networks in acquiring jobs and economic opportunities, particularly for the underclass.

With marriage comes fathers, who differ in momentous ways from boyfriends. For instance, men who marry are significantly less likely to abuse children or their domestic partners than are boyfriends. No father is perfect, but their job is to discipline and watch over their inheritors, and instruct them by example how to meet life’s duties. Married fathers may become, and produce, males invested in the successes and hopes of their sons and daughters.

Boys from these families marry the girls with whom they mate, and girls from these families have husbands when they bear children. Married mothers are commonly more mature and better educated, and, reinforced by female relatives, are generally better able to carry, nourish, and enrich their child.

Males who marry and males who get and keep jobs, which are circumstances of clear advantage for child rearing, share a common foundation–they keep commitments. Such men come from common environments–they had fathers who wed their mothers.

The result is that children from marriages are stronger and healthier, are enmeshed in networks of support and opportunity, and being legitimate–that is, inheritors in law of their parent’s identity–receive an estate as they begin their lives. That estate is both financial, in the form of property and fiscal obligations on the parent’s part, and social, in that a “trust fund” of kinship embraces them.

Lastly, their estate is moral, in that children of legitimacy inherit the values and promises of ceremony, commitment, reciprocity and compassion which form the core of civil life. They may in early life learn these patterns and performances, which thereby enable them to enact and reenact commitments in their own experience. With marriage a social engine of destruction is halted, and the cycle of restoration is restarted.

Illegitimacy brings forth children into the welfare state without fathers, without protectors, and without the human web of covenanted public commitment. It is the antithesis of marriage and community, rending our social life, and offering up the child as fodder for predators, criminal and sexual.

Marriage, in contrast, is an institutional arrangement that is both legal and moral, and therefore at the exact intersection of church and state. Several domains meet here in a nexus of sexuality, sacredness, companionship, and economic contract. Through marriage these domains are ordered and legitimated, as are the children who enter society through this choreographed arrangement. The social patterns found in marriage grow out of preexisting moral feelings of the actors who join. But at the same time, the patterns enacted through this institution harbor and nourish just those moral sentiments which ensure its replication.

We should no longer ignore the lesson of history. In our quest for “reproductive freedom” we dissolved the legal constraints of marriage. In the absence of marriage, many things have unraveled. Economic liberty for the parties involved is the first to be compromised. The moral sentiments of civic life are next. And finally, we should ask, how long will political liberty itself remain intact? Women, and their children, are not more free today than they were under the institution of marriage. They have only traded the apparent constraint of duty for the real shackles of despair. How much longer will we deny that they suffer from exposure?