This is a continuation of a series of posts on putative father registries. Check back over the last three posts (and the extensive comments accompanying them) to get up to speed. The most recent post will at least help you understand the terrain of the discussion. In particular, it discusses what putative father registries are for. This is important to have in mind.
I’m working myself round to considering an objection to putative father registries–that objection being that they amount to sex registries. Though the term “sex registries” has been used some here, I’m not sure it has a general and agreed upon meaning–at the very least it doesn’t have one of which I am aware– which might mean we are actually talking about different things. Now for starters, I suppose I’d better say what I mean by “sex registries.”
I think of a sex registry as a place where the government requires people to report who they have sex with. And if I think of it that way, I can certainly think of many objections to sex registries. Possibly the main points have to do with privacy.
There are obviously privacy issues involved with a sex registry, but I think it is worth saying a bit about them. It’s easy to say that when two people (or three for that matter) have sex it’s a private matter, but what does that mean? One thing I know it does not mean–it does not mean that the fact that they had sex is necessarily secret. Clearly any of the participants is free to reveal to whoever they want that they had sex with whomever/whenever. And indeed, people do this all the time.
Why is this important? Because when a man and a woman has sex, neither really has an expectation that it will remain a secret. It might, but it might not. And we all know that. We all know that people do kiss and tell, even when they say they won’t.
This doesn’t particularly mean it is the governments business, but it does mean that the expectation of privacy is not the same as an expectation of secrecy or confidentiality. Somehow it seems to me it is worth noting this. It’s not an argument that sex registries would be fine, but it’s something to keep in mind.
But it also seems to me that the putative father registry isn’t exactly a sex registry, anyway. I take it that a sex registry is a place where reporting is mandatory. Signing up for a putative father’s registry is not mandatory. It’s optional. Nothing requires a man to report that he had sex with a woman. There is no requirement that a man sign up for a putative father registry.
(This actually leads me to a couple of side issues. I think if you are discovered to have an STD they may inquire about who your sex partners were and perhaps suggest you tell them. They may even record some of this information. Not exactly a sex registry and perhaps warranted by public health concerns? Also as I recall no one has raised issues of a sex registry when considering whether women should be required to disclose the names of men they had sex with around the time of conception.)
Perhaps the concern is that the man has to sign up if he wants to get notice in the event there is a child conceived and the child is placed for adoption. Does this amount to a form of coercion? I’m not sure it does. There are other alternatives for a man who is interested in possibly claiming parentage of a child. First of all, he can hang around and figure out if there is a pregnancy. No pregnancy, surely no point to registering and no pressure to do so. If there is a pregnancy, then he can demonstrate his interest in other ways–most of which require maintaining some sort of relationship with the pregnant woman. There’s clearly some public disclosure there–but it’s not a sex registry–it’s the guy claiming he’s responsible for the pregnancy, more or less. Only where the woman ditches him and freezes him out does he need to sign up to protect his rights.
Of course, if he wants to establish parentage of the child he’s going to be claiming the genetic connection and hence, acknowledging that he had sex anyway. Again, there’s disclosure there. But not really a sex registry.
After thinking about it, I’m not persuaded that the specter of a sex registry doesn’t really loom so very large here. Only a small number of men are going to register and I don’t see that they are going to be registering each time they have sex with a woman. They’ll only think about registering in those cases where they think or know there’s a pregnancy and where they are afraid they’ll be frozen out.
In the end, though, this comes down to a cost/benefit question, I think. I’ll concede that there is some cost to having a putative father’s registry. Perhaps it infringes a bit on some people’s privacy, even if I’m not totally clear on exactly whose and exactly how. But there is a corresponding benefit–one that I think outweighs it. It allows us to reliably give notice to men who are genetically related to children who are being placed for adoption and who have otherwise been frozen out of the process. I accept the trade-off (though I know that others do not).