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Equal rights for unwed fathers
By Cathy Young | March 27, 2006
WHILE THE ''Roe v. Wade for men" lawsuit filed in Michigan earlier
this month seeks the right for men to terminate their financial obligations
to a child in case of unwanted pregnancy, another dispute over male
reproductive rights has been making news as well. Last week, a front-page
New York Times story explored the plight of unwed fathers who fight
for children placed for adoption by the mothers.
One of the men profiled in the article, 23-year-old Arizona resident
Adam Clayton Jones, learned that his former fiancée -- who
had ended their relationship -- was pregnant and seeking to put up
the baby for adoption in Florida, where they had met while attending
college. An adoption agency called Jones to ask for his consent to
the adoption. He refused, fully intending to raise the baby himself.
But Jones did not know that in order to exercise his parental rights,
he had to register with the state registry for unmarried fathers.
Because he missed the deadline, he lost all his rights and has never
seen his child, now 18 months old.
Sadly, this case is all too typical. While divorced fathers complain
that they are often treated as second-class parents, never-married
fathers are much lower on the totem pole. True, their situation has
improved since the 1970s, when an unwed father's children could be
given up for adoption without his consent even if he had raised them.
Today, partly as a result of several legal controversies in which
unmarried fathers successfully contested adoptions, the majority
of states have ''putative father registries" by means of which a
man can assert his paternity. But the purpose of these registries
often seems to be less to protect the rights of the father than to
protect the rights of everyone else: the mother who wants to give
up the baby, the adoption agency, and the adoptive parents. Some
would say that they also protect the rights of the child. But that
depends on whether you believe that a child is better off being adopted
than being raised by the biological father.
In most states, the unwed father has to file with the registry either
within a certain period of the child's birth -- from five to 30 days
-- or, as in Massachusetts, at any time before the adoption petition
is filed. But neither the mother nor the adoption agency has any
obligation to notify the man of the adoption, or of the fact that
he is a father or father-to-be. Even when the father is notified,
he may not be told about the putative father registry -- which is
what happened to Jones, whose attorney, Allison Perry, refers to
the Florida registry as a ''well-kept secret." That is the situation
in most states. Not only are most men unaware of the registries'
existence, even some lawyers don't know about them.
Amazingly, many specialists believe that it's too much of a burden
on the woman or the adoption agency to require that a man be notified
of his paternity. Instead, they argue that it should be his responsibility
to file with the putative father registry every time he enters a
sexual relationship with a woman, on the off-chance that a pregnancy
may result -- a requirement that, if nothing else, smacks of a humiliating
invasion of privacy. Surely, it is far more efficient and less invasive
to limit the notification requirement to cases in which a pregnancy
actually happens, and to place the burden on those who are aware
of the pregnancy.
You would think that, unlike men who seek to avoid their paternal
responsibilities, fathers who want to be responsible for raising
their own children would at least encounter societal sympathy and
support. Sadly, that has not generally been the case. Unwed fathers
who contest adoptions are often faulted for not taking affirmative
steps to find out about the child's existence, and in some cases
are blamed even if they were actively deceived by the mother. Often,
they're suspected of being abusers whose real hidden motive is to
control the mother.
The issues of men burdened with responsibility for unwanted pregnancies,
and of men who are not allowed to be fathers to wanted children,
are linked by a common thread. Biology has made men and women unequal
with regard to reproduction. In recent decades, thanks to both technology
and social change, we have made strides to alleviate the inequality
for women, helping them avoid unwanted childbearing. But we have
lagged far behind in equalizing the situation for men. We cannot
ask men to be equal parents while giving virtually all the power
in reproductive decisions to women.