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Men's rights at women's expense?
By Cathy Young | September 9, 2002
IT SOUNDS LIKE the brainchild of a demented satirist: A law that requires a woman to place a newspaper ad disclosing the names and describing the appearance of all her sexual partners in a certain period of time. In fact, this law exists in the state of Florida and applies to any single mother who wants to place her baby for adoption but is unable to locate and notify the father so that he can contest the adoption if he so chooses.
Enacted last year, the statute has been the target of much outrage and ridicule in recent weeks after it was discovered by the media. It has been decried as barbaric and misogynistic. An overseas commentator, Joan Smith of The Times of London, compared it to the infamous decree of an Islamic court in Nigeria sentencing a young woman to death by stoning for bearing a child out of wedlock.
To Smith, it is ''blindingly obvious that the legislation ... is designed to shame women'' who have casual sex. She notes that ''these nasty laws almost always apply exclusively to women.'' Yet even one of the law's most vocal opponents, Florida attorney Charlotte Danciu, says that the law violates the privacy of men as well as women, since the women's male partners are named in the advertisements. Besides, we widely publicize the names and photos of men who don't pay child support.
Nor does it seem likely that stigmatizing women is the true purpose of the law, since it applies in very rare cases - when all other avenues to track down the father have been exhausted. So far, only two such notices have actually been placed.
This is not to say that the Florida law is good. The likelihood that the birth father will see the notice, which is supposed to run once a week for four weeks in the local newspaper of the area where conception may have occurred, seems slim. There are more private and more efficient ways of tracking down the missing father - even hiring a detective.
Nonetheless, it's important to recognize that the statute is a wrongheaded way to achieve a worthy goal: to ensure that no child is placed for adoption without giving the father an opportunity to be a father.
While many of the law's critics claim to respect this goal, their rhetoric often suggests otherwise. In The New Republic online, Michelle Cottle refers to ''all those biological dads who might not know that their precious offspring are about to be handed over to strangers'' and goes on to suggest that most of these men are ''worthless losers unfit to look after a plastic houseplant.'' (Would Cottle have allowed herself a similar description of young single mothers, many of whom aren't well qualified for parenting either?)
In television interviews, Danciu has taken the position that if a man has had a sexual encounter with a woman and doesn't want his child to be put up for adoption, it's his obligation to stay in touch with the woman and find out if she's pregnant - or forfeit his parental rights. But that's easier said than done. If the woman doesn't want the man to know about her pregnancy, she can cut off all contact; if he tries to stay in touch against her wishes, he risks being charged with stalking or harassment.
Perhaps only a small percentage of biological fathers of children who are placed for adoption would be interested in parenting. But that doesn't mean the law should not protect them.
In most of the notorious adoption-related custody battles, the birth father was not missing but was a victim of deliberate deception. Thus, in the ''Baby Richard'' case in Illinois, the mother had the baby while the father was working overseas, put him up for adoption and later told the father - whom she wanted to punish for a suspected infidelity - that his son had died at birth. In other cases, birth mothers and adoption agencies have colluded to have the adoption finalized without the father's knowledge, and conceal the child's location from the father, after he had expressed interest in gaining custody.
We need a broad recognition, both legal and cultural, that deceiving a man about paternity is every bit as wrong as getting a woman pregnant and abandoning her. No, the Florida law is not a good way to go about it. But when its critics sneer at fathers' concerns, they inadvertently prove that its supporters have a point: fathers in our culture are routinely disenfranchised, and that needs to change.