Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine cover story, Who Knew I was Not the Father?, discusses the complexities of identifying which men to label as”fathers.” The article told the heartbreaking stories of men who believed that they were the biological fathers of children they had raised for years only to find out later that they were not. The men felt betrayed by their former wives or partners, the children were often wounded by the sudden disappearance of the man they knew as their father, and the fathers who remained involved had to rebuild the relationship with the child, often without certainty that the law would continue to recognize their parental status. The article suggested mandatory paternity testiing at birth as a way to deal with an era of reliable genetic testing and unreliable parternships;”[i]n other words, the same care that hospitals take ensuring that the right mother is connected to the right newborn : footprints, matching ID bands, guarded nurseries, surveillance cameras : should be taken to verify that the right man is deemed father.”
We read the article with a shock of recognition. In a 2003 article, Which Ties Bind? Redefining The Parent-Child Relationship In An Age Of Genetic Certainty, 11 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rts. J. 1011 (2003), we suggested, after a lengthy review of the cases, that couples who wanted the relationship to last rarely inquired too closely about paternity, while at least one of separating couples had a powerful incentive to find out the truth. Yet, parent-child relationships based on the truth had a better chance of surviving than those based on falsehood. We wrote: The only way to forge parental bonds likely to survive the child’s minority therefore is to treat the issue of parenthood separately from the issue of partnership. As a modest effort in this direction, we propose modifying existing law to require mandatory paternity, or second parent, determination at birth. We then concluded that the law should encourage establishing paternity as part of the child’s record, and that waivers should be allowed only where both parents clearly understood that they were forever foregoing the opportunity to challenge the father’s parental status.
We thought it was a good idea then, and we still do.
–June Carbone and Naomi Cahn