The Court of Appeal has yet again restricted the rights of dads - when will fatherhood be given a break?
The court of appeal has ruled that a mother wishing to have her baby adopted does not have to tell the father of its existence. This decision shows just how ambivalent and uneasy the establishment is about endorsing the developing role of fathers, beyond the traditional stereotype of breadwinner and sperm provider.The 19-week-old baby girl was conceived as a result of a one-night stand with a colleague. The mother, who is now 20, wished to have the child adopted immediately after giving birth, but a legal guardian and the local authority made an application to the county court asking that the father be made aware of the existence of his child.
Lord Justice Thorpe, one of the three appeal court judges, said:
"The law improves the opportunity of the child of anonymous birth to search out its biological origin. However, the ultimate veto remains with the mother. Registers of information are in place to lead the searching child to the mother's door but the child has no right of entry if the mother, despite counselling, refuses to unlock it."
Given that so much is now known about the strength of the biological tie, why shouldn't the father know that a one-night stand has led to the birth of his child? Why should the mother have the right to deny a child information that might one day provide an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is his or her heritage?
Teenage dads are lambasted if they "sire" several children and show no interest in their upbringing, but the decision of the appeal court judges implies that a young man engaging in a mutually consenting one-night stand has no rights and, apparently, no responsibilities to any offspring of that brief union.
Of course this is a tricky area. Why should social services be involved? For hundreds if not thousands of years, children have been born in similar circumstances and the father has been left in the dark. But since, in this instance, the authorities have been brought into the equation - and since a body of law and practice is now being built up around the idea of modern fatherhood, which expects a man to be more than just the breadwinner - the court of appeal's decision is a large step backwards.
In this situation, given the choice, the young man might have opted to bring the child up himself. Even if he had not, the child surely has the right, one day, to discover more about the father she never knew, should she wish to.
This, inevitably, leads to another tricky dilemma already fought out in the courts. If a father is informed of a potential adoption, should he also be informed of a potential abortion, and have the power to stop it?
My view is that he should not - however contradictory that appears. Once the child is born, then his or her rights ought to be paramount - but not before. Thirty years ago, Michael E Lamb described fathers as "forgotten contributors to child development". Now there is a growing body of evidence that shows if fathers are involved in parenthood, there are long term positive benefits for his relationship with the mother and, more importantly, for his relationship with the child.
This, however, depends on whether the mother allows him to be involved from birth; whether there is widespread support for him (which could be helped, for instance, by including the father's role in the literature aimed at first time parents) and whether work allows some leeway for him to spend time with his family (which is not evidenced by two weeks' paternity leave at £100 a week).