Polemicists being what they are, it’s no surprise that many have used the death of celebrity centerfold Anna Nicole Smith to suggest that our society is overly sexualized, that girls need better role models, that the relentless seeking of celebrity leads to pathetic endings.
Much stranger, and far more perverse, was the Sunday New York Times op-ed by Stephanie Coontz, a scholar of the family who has long argued that traditional family structure is a locus of evil, and that efforts to strengthen marriage or the family are exercises in unjustified nostalgia. She made the case that the five-month-old daughter Smith left behind was in better shape than she likely would have been if the U.S. had failed in the late 1970’s to do away with all legal demarcations between legitimacy and illegitimacy as conditions for inheritance.
For those who have not followed the case: the baby in question, Dannielynn, is the prize in a grotesque custody circus. Four or five men who have had sexual relations with Smith are lining up to take paternity tests. They want to claim fatherhood of Dannielynn, because she might—might—inherit roughly $400 million from the still-contested estate of Smith’s late husband, the Texas billionaire Howard Marshall.
Coontz tells us that “For thousands of years the future of a child born out of wedlock was of no interest to anyone, especially if she was an orphan. The only people likely to take her in were people who needed free labor on their farms. . . . Little Dannielynn would not have had a right to her mother’s inheritance, much less a legal claim to receive support from the family of either her deceased mother or her father.” Coontz then links Dannielynn’s good fortune to court decisions in the 1960’s and 70’s, which she does not cite by name.
As it happens, illegitimate children could inherit from their mothers for a century or more before that time—a fact that Coontz tries to fudge. As for the right to inherit from an unwed father–which has nothing to do with this case, since the potential inheritance comes from the mother—this was established in 1977, in Trimble v. Gordon. There the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision striking down an Illinois statute, enabled a young Deta Trimble to inherit the worldly goods of her father, who had been murdered. His estate amounted to an old Plymouth car, worth roughly $2,500.
Coontz regards that decision as a major step toward justice for children born out of wedlock. But if this selling-out of support for the institution of marriage for $2,500 isn’t the proverbial exchange of a birthright for a mess of pottage, what is? At the time, the affirming Justices conceded that legitimacy was a pillar of the institution of the family, and the dissenting ones warned that the consequences of the decision would be grave.
The United States now has an illegitimacy rate of 38 percent. Very few of these fatherless children, who will inherit nothing, and who are without famous mothers or gigolos vying to support them, are better off for being born into a society where, thanks to the decisions Coontz celebrates, women have fewer and fewer incentives to be married to the fathers of their babies.