Outcomes of stigmatising unmarried mothers

Recently, several bloggers connected with the Atlantic website (Andrew Sullivan, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ross Douthat etc) have got into an argument about whether it would be a good idea to stigmatise unmarried mothers. The idea is that this would discourage women from this option, with the hope that this might lessen the social problems caused by single parenthood etc. Speaking as an ex-bastard (I was born to unmarried parents, but when I was adopted I became the legitimate child of my adoptive parents), I’m not happy about the morality in stigmatising unmarried mothers (and note how it ends up sex-specific again). Also, as has been pointed out, it’s not easy to restigmatise a behaviour that has lost its stigma. But I want to consider a different question. Suppose you could make unmarried motherhood shameful: would it have the results that the social conservatives want?

First of all, stigmatising unmarried motherhood/parenthood is not going to stop women getting pregnant accidentally. If a man and a woman are careless or clueless or unlucky enough to have an accidental conception, with all the difficulties that already brings, one additional problem is not going to make them more careful or clued up or lucky. Shame is only going to influence the sexual or contraceptive behaviour of women who deliberately choose to get pregnant while unmarried.

Secondly, what happens when a woman is unmarried and becomes pregnant? Very roughly speaking, she may be in a committed relationship with the father, a less-than-committed relationship with the father or no relationship with him. If she is in a committed relationship with him, then if there is stigma attached to unmarried parenthood, most of those couples will get married (though some may refuse to on principle). If she isn’t in a relationship with the father, she’s very unlikely to get married to him. (She might be able to get some kind of sham or substitute marriage with another man, but that’s not likely to be a very stable or permanent marriage). What about those who are in a less-than-committed relationship? Currently, with no pressure to marry, a lot of relationships still break up at the point when a woman gets accidentally or deliberately pregnant. It’s not clear that stigmatising unmarried mothers would make most men in that situation any more willing to commit themselves to marriage and parenthood. (You might get more shotgun marriages, but again, these are likely to be unstable). So, while shame might mean some more prospective mothers get married, substantial numbers of stable marriages are only likely to be created in cases where there’s already a stable unmarried relationship (i.e. the couples whose relationships and children are already least likely to run into difficulties).

There’s also the question: what happens to a pregnant woman who can’t or doesn’t want to marry? One choice is for her to face the stigma of unmarried motherhood: that’s hardly a beneficial outcome for her or her child. If she doesn’t want that, she has a choice between abortion and adoption. For a woman who primarily wants to avoid stigma, there is no competition: abortion is the obvious answer. There may still be a genuine stigma attached to abortion, but it can normally be done secretly, at an early stage before the pregnancy shows. If you choose to have your baby adopted however, you either have a difficult job of concealment, or you endure several months of public shame for being pregnant outside marriage. (I don’t see how you can shame unmarried motherhood and not have it impact on attitudes to unmarried pregnancy).

If you stigmatise unmarried motherhood, therefore, the negative end results are likely to be more abortions, more unstable marriages created and the lives of unmarried women and their children made unhappier. In return, what you mostly get is existing long-term unmarried couples marrying, and a small percentage of ‘involuntary’ marriages that may work out against the odds. Do most social conservatives really think that this would be an overall improvement?


5 thoughts on “Outcomes of stigmatising unmarried mothers

  1. Social Conservatives stigmatise people so they can commit the sin of Pride by feeling superior and envy by spoiling the sense of loving achievement a mother has for her baby. As far as they are concerned the more people they can stigmatise the better. They only bleat on about such things because they are too stupid to realise that their actions in doing so are inherently sinful.


  2. As someone who grew up in a very conservative environment (but who couldn’t stomach the views once I hit adulthood), of course the real motive in stigmatizing single motherhood is to try and scare young girls (and women) into not having sex. It’s the whole, “look what can happen to you if you do this!” rationale, similar to how the terrors of hell were supposed to “inspire” medieval (and modern!) audiences into being good Christians. Never mind that such stigmatization harms the mothers and babies and society as a whole – they’re already lost causes, but the young girls who aren’t there yet can still be saved. Or some such skewed thinking.

    This seems akin to the whole “debate” on abstinence-only education in the US, a la “scare them enough with tales of sin and disease and pregnancy and they won’t have sex at all. Give them a way to avoid these scary things, i.e. condoms, and they’re sure to become completely debauched!” Totally baseless, reactionary thinking, but there you go. Public health be damned!


    • What is weird is given how much conservatives are prone to idealize past societies, how little clue they have about how they actually worked. You can’t easily restore stigma in an age of great geographical mobility, just as abstinence education, to the extent it ever worked in the past, required a wider culture which avoided mention of sex whenever possible. (There have also been studies suggesting the existence in England of ‘illegitimacy-prone’ families/subcultures from the sixteenth century onwards, which suggests stigmatization didn’t necessarily work even then).


  3. Thanks for saying ‘unmarried mothers’ — I have a colleague who repeatedly talks about single mothers and their bravery — especially those who are at uni. While I’m certainly not going to argue that being a single mother is hugely daunting and takes a lot of courage, willpower, and strength (child of single mother for much of my life, sister of single mother, best friends with many children of single mothers), these women are most often unmarried mothers — women in committed relationships with the fathers of their children, who have either a partner’s income or dual incomes (and often help from parents), and have an partner who shares in the childcare.

    not the same as being a single parent, mother or father.


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