Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Paternally Yours

There's more to being a "dad" than just being the biological father of a child, writes Leslie Cannold.

John Howard thinks it a wonderful story but I have my doubts. First, there’s the hypocrisy of the career politician largely responsible for the re-politicisation of the abortion issue – the one who introduced the latest chapter of his personal saga with the claim that adoptee Daniel O'Connor's first words to him were “Thanks for having me” – pleading with the media not to use the story as a “political football”. Then there’s the repeated description of Health Minister Tony Abbott as a “father” reunited with his long lost “son”.
Father? Son? Pardon me, but the last time I checked father had a precise legal meaning, not to mention widely understood social connotations. A father is a parent with both legal rights to and responsibilities for a particular child. Dads are men who aren’t just, or even necessarily, “there” at the time of conception but who do the hard daily work of raising children to adulthood. As I understand the story so far, Abbott has no claim to either paternal title where Daniel O’Connor is concerned.
But someone does. Indeed, one can only imagine the way O’Connor’s adoptive father is feeling about the way his years of paternal commitment and devotion have been swept aside by what seems to be viewed as Abbott’s trumping claim of biological paternity. Not to mention the exposure of his fertility status, as well as other aspects of his history, to public scrutiny.
How did we all get so confused about who is – and is not – a father? The main culprit is the DNA paternity test. For the first time in history, it allows paternity to stand beside maternity as a matter of fact, rather than inference. In the Hawke era, the test was seen as a tool for alleviating child poverty without increasing taxpayer pain. The idea was simple. While the older definition of fatherhood as the man married to a child’s mother had - in a world of climbing divorce rates and single mother households – led to increasing numbers of children lacking fiscal support from a father, biological definitions of fatherhood were more bulletproof. To put it simply, while some kids lack a social father, every child has a biological one. Having handily applied the ancient mentality usually reserved for women of “you play, you pay” to men, fiscal support of children became as easy as D-N-A. The Child Support (Assessment) Act was born.
Courts, both here and overseas, have rigorously supported the new biological definition of fatherhood. They have not only applied it to men who contracted in writing with the mother to just donate sperm, but to blokes with a mental disability or who were unconscious or even under age – and thus a victim of statutory rape – when sex took place. The only exceptions have been federal and state laws that make the husbands of women treated in IVF clinics with anonymous sperm the legal fathers of any resulting children.
As this potted history shows, the downsides of calling sperm donors “fathers” are significant. Not just for step- and adoptive dads, but for men in general.
But the biggest losers are children. As high-profile “paternity fraud” cases reveal, when deceived men go into a tale-spin about their wife’s infidelity, some take their rage out on the children. Not only do these fellas spend years in court seeking to shrug off legal responsibility for children they have raised from babyhood, but some pursue “refunds” for amounts paid and services rendered, too.
Not surprisingly, and as these men know all too well, this behaviour sounds the death knell for their relationship with the children they once called theirs. Not to mention the damage such protracted public rejection does to these kids’ self-esteem and capacity to trust.
It doesn’t need to be this way. In the wake of DNA testing, the legal and social definition of a father quickly changed from the man married to the child’s mother to the one whose sperm was involved in conception. There’s no reason our understandings couldn’t evolve again. All that’s needed is a commitment from society to share the cost with mothers of raising children when there’s no real dad around.
And who is a real dad? He isn’t a sperm donor. Instead, he’s a man able to put his callow needs and ambitions to one side and commit himself not just to the hard daily work of raising kids, but to never letting those children down.
Dr Leslie Cannold is an ethicist at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne and the author of What, no baby? Why women are losing the freedom to mother, and how they can get it back. (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005).


At 9:26 am, Blogger DI_Dad said...

I couldn't agree more that being a dad is much more than being the biological parent. I am the Dad to two beautiful kids conceived via Donor Insemination. I found this posting while searching the web, blogs in particular, for posts regarding this topic and found yours.

I actually addressed this issue on my own blog today dealing with listing Dads like myself as the Father on Birth Certificates. There are factions out there that believe this act is illegal and effectively cut off the child from his "true" father. I disagree as I am the true Dad although I am not the biological sire of my kids.


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