I want to think a bit more about the putative (or responsible?) father registries that were the subject of yesterday’s post. You can go back for a quick look to get up to speed about what they are and there’s already a lot of discussion in the comments.
Perhaps what I really want to do is consider how registries might work rather than how they actually do work. I draw this distinction because the way they currently operate may be problematic. In particular, the idea of requiring registration and then making it hard to figure out where to register and failing to inform men that they need to register simply creates a trap. That’s indefensible in my book.
So let’s instead think about a registry system that is widely publicized and simple to access. (I really do think that if the government wanted to do public education around registries and was committed to making it easy to register, these things could be done.)
Then the core idea is that when after a man engaged in intercourse an unmarried woman, if he was interested in being a legal parent of any child that might result, he’d be obliged to take some sort of action to manifest his interest. There are really a number of things he could do–but many of them require the cooperation of the woman. So for example, the couple could get married. Or he could participate in pre-natal training classes, perhaps. Things like that.
But you might worry (let’s just assume you do worry) about instances where the woman doesn’t want to help the man secure rights–where she wants nothing more to do with him at all. You could establish a registry as a way to allow him to demonstrate interest even in that case. He’d just write in that he had sex with her on such and such a date and that he was interested in a child that might result from that.
It seems to me that the first thing to observe is that, assuming education and easy access, any man who really did want to have parental rights would register. If he really cared about being a parent, it seems like a no brainer. I cannot think of any reason why he wouldn’t register (if he knew he was supposed to.)
One of the main objections to the idea of the registries is that they are unfair to men–that they are used to move children away from men and into adoptive families. And perhaps this is a fair claim given how things actually do work. But if you fixed the education part and the access part (and I do know those are big ifs) then would you still have a problem? Is there any unfairness in using the registry if it is properly publicized?
This reminds me to highlight a point made by Kisrita in the comments to the last post–the real use of the registries is instances where the child is placed for adoption. The birth mother wants to place the child but with no clarity about the legal status of a birth father, the legality of the adoption may be shaky. Is there a man entitled to notice of the objection–a person who might have a legal objection? If so, who and where is he? The registry addresses this concern. Before the adoption is completed, you look at the registry. If there is a man (or men) there, then they get notice, etc. If there isn’t, then the adoption can be finalized without notice. In that case the law operates to make the adoption sound because the man who fails to register has no legal rights to the child.
The only complaint I see would be that men (and people more generally) shouldn’t have to do anything to claim legal parental rights where they are genetically related to a child created via intercourse. (You could also say more generally that men shouldn’t have to do anything no matter how the child is created.) That’s a plausible position, but it isn’t one I agree with. I don’t think the mere fact of genetic connection should give rise to parental rights.
I think there are a number of ways I might justify my position, but perhaps the best would be to invoke the well-being of children. If a man cannot be bothered to even register then what kind of a parent will he make for that child? Surely the child would be better off in the care of someone who was a bit more committed to parenting, even if that person wasn’t genetically related to the child? (I’m not suggesting that we should either erase or ignore the fact of genetic connection to some man out there–only that we shouldn’t grant that man legal parental rights.)
There’s a second practical reason why it’s better for children generally to have registries like this. As I noted above, they make the adoption process easier. Without them, the child is in limbo. There’s surely a genetic father out there but we don’t know where. He’s not being a parent to the child and he’s standing in the way of anyone else taking legal responsibility as a parent. I’m not sure who benefits in that scenario, but I’m pretty clear it isn’t the child.
Now perhaps I am unrealistically optimistic about the possibility of effective education and administration of the registries. That’s certainly possible. And that is a critical assumption I’m making. But at least thinking about the registries like this tells me that it is there–the education and administration piece– that the critical issues lie.