There’s a recent Maryland case that illustrates some of the problems that might arise if you use genetics as the sole marker of parenthood. I light of the substantial discussion over the last couple of weeks about sperm donors, embryo mix-ups and parenthood, I thought it was worthy of comment here.
Darren Gerard Kamp and Vicki Jo Duckworth married in 1983. While they were married Duckworth gave birth to four children, the youngest of whom was Julie Kamp.
Julie Kamp was conceived in early 1992. At the time, Kamp was working out-of-state and only visited his wife occassionally. Perhaps even more importantly, he’d had a vasectomy in 1987. For these reasons, even before Julie Kamp was born, both Duckworth and Kamp knew it was quite likely if not certain that Kamp was not genetically related to her.
Duckworth was confident that James Stanton, with whom she had an affair, was genetically related to Julie. Apparently she conveyed this information to Kamp.
Be that as it may, Kamp did not deny paternity when Julie was born. Kamp’s legal parentage was presumed by the fact that he was married to Duckworth at the time Julie was born. No blood tests were conducted to rebut the presumption. Kamp and Duckworth decided to raise Julie as their own child. They did so until the separated in 1997 and divorced in 1998.
Even at the time of divorce, Kamp did not seek to renounce paternity. The couple agreed that four children had been born into the marriage and provisions for custody and support of all four children were included.
In 2001 Julie learned that she was not genetically related to Kamp, but was instead related to Stanton. Still, when Kamp and Duckworth returned to court in 2002-03 with a dispute about custody and child support, Kamp did not challenge his status as a parent of Julie. Indeed, he made various demands premised on this status.
Finally, 2005, when Julie was 12 or 13 years old and Duckworth sought increased child support, Kamp asserted for the first time that he was not Julie’s father. He sought to have blood tests done to establish this fact. The trial court ordered testing and, on the basis of results that showed no genetic relationship between Julie and Kamp, terminated Kamp’s obligation to pay child support.
This month the Maryland Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) determined that it was error to permit the blood tests requested by Kamp in 2005. Without the test results, the presumption that Kamp is the father of the child born to his wife during their marriage remains, as does his obligation of child support.
The court considered the best interests of the child to be its primary concern. Thus, a blood test should be ordered in this case only if that would be in the best interests of the child.
The lower court reasoned that since Julie already knew that she was not genetically related to Stanton, it would do no harm to do the testing. Julie could collect child support from Stanton instead of Kamp and the truth would be honored.
The Court of Appeals rejected this reasoning. It noted that for 13 years there had been a father/daughter relationship between Kamp and Julie. Kamp’s late effort to deny the relationship could be deeply harmful to Julie. (While ultimately the case is returned to the trial court to consider whether it was in Julie’s interest to order the blood tests, it’s difficult to see the basis on which that court could resolve the question in Kamp’s favor.)
Ultimately, it seems to me that the Maryland court is suggesting that trial judges consider the reality of the lives of the children who may come before them. While Julie may have learned that Kamp was not genetically connected to her, she and Kamp continued to relate to each other as parent and child. What Kamp seeks to do now is erase this relationship. It’s hard to see how that can be in Julie’s best interests.
It’s easy to imagine many possible variations on this story that might lead to different concerns. Suppose, for example, Kamp had no reason to suspect the lack of genetic connection until some later point in time? While that wouldn’t change consideration of the case from Julie’s perspective, it might well change it from Kamp’s. But where, as was the case here, he knowingly undertook the role of father to this child, is there any basis for allowing him to renounce the role 13 years later?