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.