Thursday, February 26, 2009


Several weeks ago, a news flurry about out-of-wedlock births caused the Iowa media to contact my office about a reported “uptick.” I was so distracted by the reference to out-of-wedlock births that I had a difficult time focusing on the conclusions journalists were trying to draw from the numbers.

First, the words themselves are out-of-date and irrelevant. In a world where women are deciding to become mothers outside of marriage, where eggs can be fertilized in a petri dish, where married and unmarried women use artificial insemination, where women serve as surrogate parents for childless couples, where gay couples who legally can’t marry use technology to conceive or choose to adopt children, I question using archaic language so out-of-sync with reality.

As a journalist and English teacher, I teach that words and labels matter, that the connotations of words matter. As someone married to an “illegitimate child,” a man born “out-of-wedlock,” I am especially sensitive to this particular designation.

A look at the 2007 Vital Statistics of Iowa Report, shows out-of-wedlock births to be one of thousands of categories including “live births to mothers ages15-17 ranked by county” and “average age of marriage l997-2007.” Any number having to do with every kind of death, birth, marriage and divorce is listed there.

One reporter who called our office said he was referring to statistics released by the Iowa Department of Public Health, so it’s clear journalists rely on these numbers and the language that accompanies them. I’ve heard that policymakers also rely on these statistics to make decisions and craft legislation.

Apart from the argument that the word is irrelevant, shouldn’t we re-examine why it matters today that a child is born “out-of-wedlock?” If the language doesn’t reflect the changes in our society, is it possible the numbers don’t either? I’m interested in learning how policy-makers or other decision-makers use these numbers.

Is it possible that if we change the language of categorizing that we’ll change the way decision-leaders use and interpret the numbers?

Let me know how you feel about the use of the words “out-of-wedlock” in a society where we commonly refer to couples in a “committed relationship.” I’m also interested in knowing how “out-of-wedlock” statistics are used by policy-makers to make decisions and how these decisions might affect peoples’ lives positively or negatively.