While the "Roe v. Wade for men" lawsuit filed in Michigan earlier this month seeks the right for men to terminate their financial obligations to a child in case of unwanted pregnancy, another dispute over male reproductive rights has been making news as well. Last week, a front-page New York Times story explored the plight of unwed fathers who fight for children placed for adoption by the mothers.
One of the men profiled in the article, 23-year-old Arizona resident Jeremiah Clayton Jones, learned that his former fiancée—who had ended their relationship—was pregnant and seeking to put up the baby for adoption in Florida, where they had met while attending college. An adoption agency called Jones to ask for his consent to the adoption. He refused, fully intending to raise the baby himself. But Jones did not know that in order to exercise his parental rights, he had to register with the state registry for unmarried fathers. Because he missed the deadline, he lost all his rights and has never seen his child, now 18 months old.
Sadly, this case is all too typical. While divorced fathers complain that they are often treated as second-class parents, never-married fathers are much lower on the totem pole. True, their situation has improved since the 1970s, when an unwed father's children could be given up for adoption without his consent even if he had raised them.
Today, partly as a result of several legal controversies in which unmarried fathers successfully contested adoptions, the majority of states have "putative father registries" by means of which a man can assert his paternity. But the purpose of these registries often seems to be less to protect the rights of the father than to protect the rights of everyone else: the mother who wants to give up the baby, the adoption agency, and the adoptive parents. Some would say that they also protect the rights of the child. But that depends on whether you believe that a child is better off being adopted than being raised by the biological father.
In most states, the unwed father has to file with the registry either within a certain period of the child's birth—from five to 30 days—or, as in Massachusetts, at any time before the adoption petition is filed. But neither the mother nor the adoption agency has any obligation to notify the man of the adoption, or of the fact that he is a father or father-to-be. Even when the father is notified, he may not be told about the putative father registry—which is what happened to Jones, whose attorney, Allison Perry, refers to the Florida registry as a "well-kept secret." That is the situation in most states. Not only are most men unaware of the registries' existence, even some lawyers don't know about them.
Amazingly, many specialists believe that it's too much of a burden on the woman or the adoption agency to require that a man be notified of his paternity. Instead, they argue that it should be his responsibility to file with the putative father registry every time he enters a sexual relationship with a woman, on the off-chance that a pregnancy may result—a requirement that, if nothing else, smacks of a humiliating invasion of privacy. Surely, it is far more efficient and less invasive to limit the notification requirement to cases in which a pregnancy actually happens, and to place the burden on those who are aware of the pregnancy.
You would think that, unlike men who seek to avoid their paternal responsibilities, fathers who want to be responsible for raising their own children would at least encounter societal sympathy and support. Sadly, that has not generally been the case. Unwed fathers who contest adoptions are often faulted for not taking affirmative steps to find out about the child's existence, and in some cases are blamed even if they were actively deceived by the mother. Often, they're suspected of being abusers whose real hidden motive is to control the mother.
The issues of men burdened with responsibility for unwanted pregnancies, and of men who are not allowed to be fathers to wanted children, are linked by a common thread. Biology has made men and women unequal with regard to reproduction. In recent decades, thanks to both technology and social change, we have made strides to alleviate the inequality for women, helping them avoid unwanted childbearing. But we have lagged far behind in equalizing the situation for men. We cannot ask men to be equal parents while giving virtually all the power in reproductive decisions to women.