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Ishmael's Bane: The Sin and Crime of Illegitimacy Reconsidered

30 Pages Posted: 3 Nov 2003  

John Witte Jr.

Emory University School of Law


This essay offers a critical rereading of the Western theological and legal doctrine of illegitimacy or bastardy. The author traces the Western stigma against bastards to the Bible, particularly to the story of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham and Hagar. He then shows the systematic discrimination against bastards in classic canon law and in early modern Anglo-American common law, and the slow amelioration of their plight in legal reforms in the United States in the past century. The author concludes that the Western doctrine of illegitimacy is theologically illegitimate and suggests a few historically-informed legal remedies, notably adoption, that would help mitigate the plight of illegitimates today.

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, Ishmael's Bane: The Sin and Crime of Illegitimacy Reconsidered. Punishment and Society: The International Journal of Penology, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2003. Available at SSRN: or

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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Atlanta, GA 30322
United States
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