Which Man Is Father To The Child?

There’s an excellent and fascinating article in the New York Times magazine (publication date tomorrow, but on-line now.)    It’s  a look at a problem that has arisen with comparatively easy DNA testing.   What happens when men learn that the children they are raising are not genetically related to them.  

I’ve written about this a bit before, but the article offers far more extended consideration than I’ve managed in a short post.   It also raises a number of different issues, primarily using individual stories to make its points and raise its questions.  

There are a few things that stand out for me.    First, as Ruth Padawer (the author) notes, in the cases discussed when a man finds out that the child he has been raising is not genetically related to him he also learns that the woman who gave birth to the child (in these cases his wife) has lied to him.  He learns she has been unfaithful to him.    

The two pieces of information (this child is not genetically related to you/your wife has been unfaithful to you) are inextricably linked.   It is hard to pull apart the man’s reaction and say how much of the reaction is due to each of these factors.  

It’s possible to imagine a case where both pieces of information are not present.   Suppose a man and woman use some form of ART, intending to use the man’s sperm.   Perhaps years later they learn that, because of a mistake, another man’s sperm has been used.  The child they have been raising is not genetically related to the man who has been raising her, but there is no issue of infidelity.  I have no doubt that this could be a very difficult discovery for the family to absorb, but it would still be a good deal simpler than those described in the article. 

What I mean to suggest is that it isn’t simply that the absence of  a genetic link that transforms the man’s relationship with his child in these cases.  It’s also the sudden discovery that he has misunderstood his relationship with his wife.   While it seems clear that the relationship between husband and wife is going to suffer in these cases, it seems to me possible that, if we didn’t set such store by DNA, that the relationship between father and child need not be destroyed.  

While it isn’t hard to be sympathetic for Mike, the lead actor in main story in the piece, it seems to me that the real tragedy in these cases is that children lose the relationships they have with these men who have been their fathers for their entire lives.  It’s clear from the account of Chandria, whose father legally and socially severed all ties with her when she was 11, that this is potentially devastating.  

Further, it seems that what drives men to abandon these children is generally money:  Men don’t want to pay child support.   Though they say they don’t want to support “another man’s child” I suspect the truth is just as much that they do not wish to pay money to their deceiving ex-wives.   (It’s not a surprising sentiment, really.)   

To see that it is the idea of paying the wife rather than supporting the child, consider the story of Tanner Pruitt.   He overcame his objection to paying the money, didn’t litigate, and ending up with custody of his genetically unrelated daughter.  I would guess that he spends a good deal more to support his daughter now than he did when she lived with his ex-wife, but since the money is paid directly (as the daughter lives with him) rather than via his ex-wife, the issue vanishes. 

In the end, I’m not sure where this leaves me.  There is surely more to think about.   Were the essence of parenthood seen to be the performance of the requisite tasks, there’d never been instances where men felt they suddenly discovered they were not fathers.   If they’d be playing the role, they’d know.  Only our insistence that DNA matters so very much creates this terrible bind.


18 responses to “Which Man Is Father To The Child?

  1. A custody case just came down from the Court of Appeal in California, where wife and husband split, wife acquires a boyfriend and when husband and wife reconcile, only wife is aware she is pregnant with boyfriend’s child. It’s a fascinating case, only in that wife first challenges paternity, then realizes that’s not her best move as boyfriend gets the paternity test proving, he’s the dad.

    And this is where our courts fail us.

    They rule, mentioning the paternity test concludes the child is the issue of the now ex-boyfriend, that the child is the husband’s.

    Ex-boyfriend gets no custody or visitation.

    What’s compelling is the courts officially validating a deliberate lie.

    What should happen is the child stay with the parents, but be told the truth gradually.

    Because that’s what’s ultimately in the “Best Interests of the Child.”

    Not doing so of course, fuels the divorce and custody industry, which after all, is the point of family court.

    In an unrelated area – getting killed for wanting to get out of a relationship, (http://www.familylawcourts.com/kids.html)

    especially wives of police officers,

    there is an answer should media wake up from being asleep at the wheel.



    • In general I’m in favor of telling kids the truth, in ways that are age/individual child appropriate. The more difficult question is what counts as truth. I feel strongly that we need to affirm a child’s sense of their own reality. If there is a man who has developed a father-like relationship with the child over a long period of time, what can it accomplish to tell that child “this is not your father”? On the other hand, it might be good for the child to konw that this man is not genetically related to you.

      A wrote a while back about how we ought to structure a hierarchy of parenthood. https://julieshapiro.wordpress.com/2009/10/07/is-there-are-hierarchy-of-parenthood/ What I meant to get at there was how we should resolve competing claims of parenthood, as you describe here. Does being married to the mother always beat being genetically related to the child? Or should it be the other way around? Or should the answer vary, case by case, in which case we need to know what determines which trumps in specific instances.

  2. Wouldn’t it make it so much easier if a genetic parent is always the parent of a child unless the child is adopted or co-adopted by another person? Of course, my stance is and has always been that I only accept genetic and adoptive parenthood as ‘real parenthood’. But such a stance seems easy to comprehend and simple to sort out in all cases.

    • I think that’s the main strength of using genetics–it’s simple and, in this day and age, pretty clear. It assures that each child has two parents, one of each sex.

      But just because it is easy to use, doesn’t make it right. I think the cases in this story show one reason why. The men who raised these children deserve to have their contribution to the kids lives recognized.

      Sometimes the genetically related man may be long gone, but someone else is ready to step in and take on the role. I’d prefer the person willing to step in to the one who skips.

      More broadly, I’d prefer to validate a child’s experience of who the child’s parents are. If a baby is left on a doorstep and the people at the house raise the child as their own child, the fact that they aren’t genetically related doesn’t matter to me. Sure, the child will probably be interested in who left her/him on the doorstep and why. But I wouldn’t give those people legal rights to determine the child’s future. That’s what making them parents does.

      Ultimately, I think being a parent is so much more than genetics. It troubles me to think that a man could think he’s a father simply because he provided genetic material to create a child. He doesn’t have to do anything to earn that privileged status? That just seems wrong to me.

  3. The problem with the answer Ms. Shapiro supplied, “In general I’m in favor of telling kids the truth, in ways that are age/individual child appropriate,” is that she made a clear choice to ignore the case cites.

    Not addressing the case, however, makes the point: that the courts are now in the business of facilitating a lie. Indeed, they helped through their ruling, to set it up…because now the non-biological dad is free to “develop” the relationship.

    Which reminds me of the bad conduct by the State of TN where the immigrant parents thought they were giving up their child for six weeks only. After being duped, the State sided with the foster parents for years….using that exact same argument; that the foster parents had developed the magic buzz word, “relationship.”

    Sanity and real compassion for the child only entered the picture at the TN Supreme Court level; seven years later.

    Regarding the case I actually mentioned….who’s to say the husband and wife stay together?

    No, the truth is always best. Complicated relationships *can* be worked out; but one must begin with the truth, from the Get.

    And to answer the question: “Does being married to the mother always beat being genetically related to the child? ”

    In California, the answer is always: Yes. When it comes to paternity; marriage trumps all.

    That way the State continues protecting itself, instead of the people.

  4. There are a fair few adoptees who cite that their natural (biological sounds like a UK washing powder ad) parents are real. Adoption is not an end in itself, but the adoption community (not the adoptee community themselves) like fake birth certificates which is a legacy of a descision made in the 30’s to conceal the natural mothers’ presence as so many were single and the single mother then was considered immoral and likely to ruin the reputation of the child. So much for the rights and wrongs of

  5. Absolutely, Angela.

    Remember, The Changeling, was based on a True story.

    Changeling is a 2008 American drama film based on real life events in 1928 Los Angeles. (The film starred Angelina Jolie as a woman who is reunited with her missing son—only to realize he is an impostor). Jolie confronted the city authorities and was promptly vilified both as an unfit mother, then branded as delusional.

    The film explored how the courts place little value and protection to woman and children, both.

    It also highlighted corruption, child endangerment and the repercussions of speaking truth to power.

    A more recent California example is below. The short version is women can scream for help in the courthouse, many times; but the California Supreme Court s will not help. And when she’s killed in the Courthouse in front of her child, in spite of warning everyone her murder would happen, the Courts will not take any responsibility.



  6. I think that the way all this sort of stuff goes on above the child’s head is bad and bordering on the insensitive, if not right within it at times. Out seem to come the platitudes, platitudes for children that no one, divorce-judge or IVF purchasor or adopter, has even spent time with, platitudes like”as long as the child is loved”or “we”ll tell them when they’re old enough to understand” or “in the best interests of the child” or “but they’ll go to a loving family” but the facts are hard to ignore with IVF and adoption postings on-line written by adult casualties of these practises. I’m sure the judiciary will notice soon.

  7. Julie. you say Only our insistence that DNA matters so very much creates this terrible bind.

    The situation you describe has nothing to do with DNA testing, but with the truth of biological parenthood.

    When recently a birth ward in Australia called two mothers and told them that they had accidentally switched their babies, the two women went into chock. Why? they loved the babies they had brought home. If biological connection doesn’t matter, why should we care with keeping track of the babies in the birth wards? Why not just number the babies according to the time of birth and give them to the women according to the time when they leave the clinic?

    There is no reason to believe that men should feel any different.

    • Perhaps the point I am trying to make is overly fine, but here is what I am thinking. Before the women know the children are switched, they are happy with and love the babies they have. The unmatching DNA does not, by itself, cry out to them. It doesn’t make it impossible to be mothers to the children. In the same way the fathers in the article are loving and caring fathers, despite the fact that there is no DNA match.
      But then they learn that the DNA doesn’t match. It’s this knowledge that changes everything. For the men it changes everything, at least in part, because it tells them that they have been cruelly decieved. It’s different for the women in your example, but still, it is the knowledge that changes things. And that, I think, is because we have it in our heads (for whatever reason) that the DNA thing matters. If we didn’t know anything about DNA, these relationships might well continue.
      What this suggests to me is that the parental relationships are not formed or broken because of DNA or the lack thereof, but rather because of a combination of what else the DNA tells us (that the man was decieved) and our ideas about what it means for a child to be “ours.”
      And to be clear, I don’t think it is either surprising or wrong that we worry about whether we have the right baby when we leave the hospital. It’s a reflection of a complicated cultural contruct of who the real parents of a child are.

  8. In the article Chandria Smith says of the man who was duped into paying for her upbringing for the first eleven years of her life: “He was what a father was supposed to be,” she says, “but when things changed, he completely disconnected. That’s just not fair. You’ve been in my life my entire life and for you to just cut that off for money, well, that’s not fair to anybody.”

    Who is she to say that is not fair? What right has she to demand that a man completely unrelated to her genetically be required to pay for her upbringing. I’m sure that Mr Smith has much better things to spend his money on then raising another (feckless) man’s child.

    It might be sad for Chandria but the courts and legal system have no right to demand that unrelated people become responsible for other people’s offspring. Heck, the courts don’t even make sperm donors responsible for their own children, so why should someone completely ungenetically related be held responsible when he was duped. He didn’t make the baby, or choose to rear another man’s baby, he was tricked into believing it was his!

    The sooner the state genetically tests all parents and offspring at birth and notifies them of relatedness, the better. Then if a man decides to rear another man’s child he can, but if he doesn’t want to waste his money looking after another man’s kid, he can walk off and find himself a loving wife and raise his own children.

    • I think the anger at being tricked into supporting another man’s child, as you put it, is quite understandable. But once eleven years have passed the question is what to do with that anger. Perhaps the law ought to allow for some sort of action against the person/people who deceived him in order to satisfy a need for vengence. But what do we do about the relationship with the child?
      The child did not deceive him and has grown to love and rely on him. And, I would assume, he had come to love and care for her. That relationship is real, even if it began in someone’s telling him a lie. And I think for the well-being of children (which you have invoked in the past) we need to expect people to be grown-ups and honor those relationships.

      You address a different question with the suggestion of DNA testing at birth. I think that’s an interesting idea. It would prevent situations like the one here from arising. Maybe that would be a good thing. But it is also a different question. For now, we do not test at birth, and so what do we do in cases like this? I think one could perfectly well say that the man would have a right to walk away at the beginning, but not ten years down the road.

  9. Quite obviously it did not break Mr Smith’s heart and was not too difficult for him to walk off away from Chandria when he found out she was not his daughter. Raising a kid is very hard but a big investment since it assures us of genetic posterity. But I can imagine that for many people who are struggling with the task of child rearing, that finding out they are not the real parent would give them a huge incentive to walk away. And really why shouldn’t they? From my perspective it would be the most natural and reasonable thing to do. Even as a woman, had I conceived via IVF (which I did not) and then found out kids I was raising were not mine, I think with 99% certainty I would be willing to walk away, certainly with anger about the mistake and with grief about the losslof opportunity of having my own children. But I don’t think I would have interest in sacrificing my life for another woman’s children that I had not agreed to raise. I say this even as a mother.

  10. Julie, the discovery of the infidelity does not result from the discovery of the DNA test- its the other way around. The DNA test is undertaken because of the discovery (or at least the strong suspicion) of infidelity.

    And should it really surprise us? Historically speaking, is that not one of the main reasons behind the historically severe treatment given to female infidelity- male concerns about genetic paternity?

    You say that because if we don’t know about it, it doesn’t change anything, than therefore if we do know about it, it shouldn’t change anything either is simplistic. All organisms have a desire to reproduce. In humans this is mediated via our cognitive capacity, yes, that allows us to trick ourselves. Does that mean the desire to reproduce is irrelevant?

    • Perhaps you are right about the ordering. But it does seem that knowing with certainty that your wife betrayed you is different from suspecting it. But I’ m not sure this really matters.

      I do think your historical point is at least in part correct.

      I disagree with your restatement of my argument. I don’t mean to suggest that because we do know, it shouldn’t change anything. It does. Knowledge matters, obviously more to some than to others. I think it is interesting to think about why it matters. I’m not persuaded that it is “natural” that the knowledge matters, which might be what you are suggesting.

  11. Sandy- DNA testing can be done at birth for whoever so desires it.

    However in my opinion mandatory DNA testing is a violation of constitutional rights and to me raises the spectre of the possibilty of nazi like social engineering.

  12. and regarding chandria, i think the best interest of the child requires that the court absolve Mr Smith of all financial duties toward her, but offer him the rights of visitation and having a relationship.

    He may find that he still harbors fatherly feelings toward her.

    Now that’s fair, isn’t it? For his 11 years of caretaking, he deserves the rights if he so wants them, but because he was decieved, why should he continue to assume the obligations?

    • Very interesting suggestion and I’m not sure I’d disagree with it. At least I’d agree that Mr. Smith might well be entitled to some sort of monetary compensation from his wife, who willfully decieved him. And if that enabled him to maintain his relationship with the child who at least had been his daughter, so much the better.

      It seems to me that this suggestion has the benefit of placing the “blame” for what happened to him on the correct person and shielding the innocent child.

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