Waldlaw Blog

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Who's Your Daddy?

A colleague forwarded me an article this week which she read in the legal press. Here's the headline and the beginning of the article: Teen Sues Mother for ID of Father by Tresa Baldas "In a case that family law experts fear could set a dangerous precedent, a Michigan teenager is suing his mother to learn the identity of his father. "Family law attorneys say the issue of compelling a mother to reveal the identity of the biological father is a new area of law. And depending on how the Michigan judge rules in the case, they say, courts nationally could see a new flood of lawsuits of children suing their parents." The facts of the case, briefly, are that a married woman gave birth to a child, and everyone assumed that her husband was the father. The couple subsequently divorced, and the husband was required to pay child support. He eventually sued to be relieved of his child support obligations after two DNA tests suggested that he wasn't actually the child's biological father. The court said "fuggedaboudit" -- or, in more legal terms, "the court rejected his claim, saying it didn't matter whether he was the biological father. He had raised the child, was deemed to be the legal parent and the payments would have to continue." Two years later, the son sued the mother with the ex-husband's encouragement and support. So is this case about children's rights to know their genetic heritages, or is this a manipulative move by a man trying to get out of paying child support?? And what are the repurcussions of a ruling in either direction?? I am aware of two cases -- one in California and one in Massachusetts -- where children have sued sperm banks to force disclosure of the identity of their genetic fathers. In the California case, the lawsuit came about when it was discovered that the child suffered from a major medical condition that was believed to be genetic in origin. The court ordered the sperm bank to obtain a deposition from the donor on all relevant medical issues without disclosing the donor's identity. The Massachusetts case raises similar issues, and we are hoping it will be resolved in a similar way -- because if the court orders release of the donor's identity, that will be the end of sperm banks in Massachusetts. (What man would agree to donate his sperm to a sperm bank if he knew that his identity was not protected?) Now, the issue has been raised in the context of marital families. This issue does not arise in a vacuum. There has been a big move nationally to allow husbands and ex-husbands to "disestablish" their paternity if it turns out that the children they have been raising aren't biologically theirs. This issue is complex, and I see both sides. On the one hand, it is rough to require a man to pay child support for a child with whom he has no biological or emotional connection -- a child that is living proof that his wife cheated on him -- just because the child was born during a marriage that subsequently fell apart. On the other hand, it is rough to allow a man to ditch a child whom he has raised, and who relates to him as a father, just because it turns out that the man's fatherhood is not biological. These arguments are being played out in the media, in the legislatures, and in the courts around the country -- but up until now, they have involved men trying to be relieved of child support obligations directly, without bringing the children into the fray. Now, a man who has lost his child support battle has come up with a new approach -- get the kids to sue. Make it seem like the issue is one of genetic justice, not of child support. As with all such matters, my gut reaction is -- keep the kids out of it!! Don't give folks one more reason to put their children in the middle of their disputes about custody and child support. If we're going to reconsider how we determine who "parents" are -- which is a truly complex issue involving both biology and the social realities of children's lives -- let's do that as adults through discourse and through the political process. It is a discussion we desperately need to be having on a national level -- but not by encouraging children to sue their parents.


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