HAVRE DE GRACE -- Had they truly wanted to put a little life into their debate, one of the issues which those two tired, tepid, tedious presidential candidates might have raised Wednesday night was the spreading social cancer of illegitimacy.
The statistics are plain as the lines on a fever chart. One-third of all births in our country are now what the social-science euphemisticians call ''non-marital.'' In Baltimore for 1994 the number was 67.8 percent, and other big cities are comparable.
Although in the United States the illegitimacy rate is higher for blacks than whites, what we have here is not something that can be conveniently tied to race -- or to nationality, either. White illegitimacy is rising, too. Canada, Australia and Great Britain have almost as high a proportion of unmarried mothers as does America; in the Scandinavian countries the rate is much higher. In Iceland it is nearly 60 percent.
But the trend isn't worldwide, or if it is it isn't at all uniform. Japan's illegitimacy rate is 1 percent, the same as it was 30 years ago. The rate in most Roman Catholic countries is rising, but still low; in Spain in 1990 it was 10 percent, in Italy 7 percent. These countries still associate marriage, for good or ill, with permanence, or what D.H. Lawrence memorably called ''the decree, doom and dignity of it.''
To give President Clinton some credit, he did raise this touchy subject, with appropriate concern about its implications for the future, in his 1994 State of the Union address. But nobody paid much attention at the time, and he soon dropped the matter.
Actually, the silence that greeted his unexpected mention of illegitimacy, in the process violating an old Democratic taboo, was more an indication of embarrassment and confusion than inattention. And that in itself is mildly encouraging, for it shows that even in the president's party the notion is taking hold that intact families -- meaning a husband, a wife and children -- really do matter.
This had been pointed out, with hard statistics to back it up, at least 30 years ago by people like James Coleman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
But because the findings ''were contrary to received understanding,'' as Senator Moynihan says in his recent book ''Miles to Go,'' they were either attacked, as in his case, or ignored, as in Dr. Coleman's.
But although ''received understanding'' is now beginning to change, nobody, and certainly neither Bill Clinton nor Bob Dole, seems to have any idea what to do about it.
Well, hardly anybody. In the Weekly Standard, John DiIulio Jr. says, in all seriousness, that what's needed is the return of the shotgun wedding.
Now obviously, the dimwit handlers of the presidential candidates, with their hard drives full of polls and focus-group blather, wouldn't allow their guys to say anything like that. Voters might think they'd sold out to the National Rifle Association. But Mr. DiIulio is onto something.
Back in the 1950s, he recalls, a teen-age relative of his got pregnant and the college-kid father refused to marry her -- until a wise-guy Italian uncle stepped in and had a private chat with the lad, who emerged pale and prepared to propose. Soon the couple married, the child was born and others followed. A household was established, and all was forgiven.
''One man can make the babies,'' said a grandmother comfortably, ''but sometimes other men have to make the fathers.''
But -- I can already hear the reedy little refrain -- suppose the union forced upon the young couple wasn't, like, happy? Wouldn't that be the worst of all possible outcomes?
The answer is no, the worst of all possible outcomes is, like, what we're headed for when the current non-marital baby boom reaches puberty in another 14 years or so.
Society has to find ways to push those who reproduce into marriage, and to keep them there until their children are grown. It can be done, if society decides once again that that's what's required, without actually having to fall back on shotguns and wise-guy uncles.
It wouldn't take much imagination to produce some adverse consequences for those who produce ''non-marital births,'' and these need not include punitive policies toward the children so produced. One possibility already getting some attention would be to make welfare for teen-age mothers contingent on their living in adult-supervised settings.
Another painfully obvious step proposed by Professor DiIulio would be ''to treat the statutory rape of poor black girls with the same moral seriousness that liberal elites now lavish on 'date rape' on college campuses.''
Mr. Clinton? Mr. Dole? There's still time to weigh in seriously on this subject before the election, if you guys aren't too busy.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 10/20/96