Men’s and women’s reproductive systems are different, and so a full discussion of reproductive rights needs to take into account each gender’s unique concerns. Being the ones to carry the child gives women unique concerns involving the physical/medical consequences of pregnancy, but not being the ones to carry the child gives men unique concerns as well, namely paternal uncertainty—men are at a natural disadvantage when it comes to knowing if the child is theirs. This page looks into how big of a problem this is, and what we can do to address this unique reproductive concern for men.
- Policy problems
- Ideological roadblocks
(Length: 1,400 words)
Paternity fraud (also called false paternity, misattributed paternity, or paternal discrepancy) occurs when a man is wrongly named (to the man himself and/or to the government) as the biological father of a child. It can be the result of infidelity or promiscuity, and it can be intentional or negligent. How often does it happen? A 2005 review paper and a 2008 review paper find a median rate of 3.7% and 2.1%, respectively, and evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk gives a range of 1-5%. Consider that there are 70 million fathers in the U.S. Ignoring multiple children for simplicity, a paternity fraud rate of 3% gives 2.1 million American men who wrongly think “their child” is theirs.
Rates vary by multiple factors, including socioeconomic status and level of confidence in paternity. Anthropologist Kermyt Anderson found a rate of 1.7% paternity fraud for men with high confidence, and 30% for men who suspected enough to get a paternity test.
2. Policy problems
There are numerous ways the system puts a low priority on protecting men from paternity fraud and its consequences. An article in Slate explains that the medical establishment has come to a consensus that findings of paternity fraud (during routine testing, like if the blood type of the baby could not come from the father) should be withheld “to protect the mother’s privacy and avoid unnecessary harm”. An article in The Telegraph cites a finding that 95% of genetic counselors (advisers on tests for hereditary conditions) “would not tell a man that the child wasn’t his”.
What’s worse, if a man does manage to find out that the child is not his, he will often be expected to still pay child support if, before he learned of the deceit, he took a fatherly role with the child. A lawyer in Michigan explains that this is the case in her state, under the “equitable parent” doctrine. One law office in Florida bluntly explains that the courts in that state do not care if you are the real father, and that the law prioritizes ensuring that children receive financial support. And a lawyer in Colorado says that it’s “very rare” for a man to be let out of these obligations “unless someone else is willing to step into that role”. The book Legalizing Misandry (chapter 6) gives an example of a case.
As one father, paying $1,400 a month for a child whom he has never met and who was the result of his wife’s adultery, put it, “I can get out of jail for murder based on DNA evidence, but I can’t [use DNA evidence to] get out of child support payments.” Meanwhile, financially strapped, he and his new wife and their three children live with his in-laws, and he has lost his driver’s license for missing support payments
France goes as far as making paternity testing illegal (see Code pénal – Article 226-28 and Code civil – Article 16-11; exceptions for medical reasons, to identify a deceased person, or with a court order).
3. Ideological roadblocks
There’s a surprising amount of opposition on principle to paternity testing (or more broadly to men caring about genetic relation to a child). A paternity testing company reports that the French ban was done for the “preservation of peace within French families” and because “French psychologists suggest that fatherhood is determined by society not by biology”. And (former) Gender Studies professor Hugo Schwyzer downplays the legitimacy of being concerned about paternity fraud (beyond the fact that it means being cheated on, which he accepts as a valid concern). He criticizes the father’s rights movement for being afraid of paternity fraud because “their definition of ‘father’ is so fragile, so contingent, so limited, and so utterly narcissistic”.
However, other cases of caring about genetic relation are hardly controversial, like hospital swaps. This woman gave birth and said she was “paranoid” at the hospital about the chance of a baby swap. One case of a hospital swap in France resulted in a two million euro payout, and another case in Manitoba was described with the line “lives were stolen”. Should we condemn people who make a big deal of hospital swaps as genetic narcissists? If not, we shouldn’t condemn men for being concerned about paternity fraud. This isn’t to say that genetics is everything (many people are happy to adopt and raise a child they have no relation to) but genetics is clearly something. Whether someone wants to be a father to a child they’re not related to should be their own choice to make, and not up to “French psychologists”.
Sometimes I see concern about paternity fraud dismissed with accusations of misogyny and of distrusting women, as if it’s insulting to even suggest that a woman might do this. But the concern about paternity fraud is based on actual research and statistics, not vague suspicion or misogyny. It’s clear that although most women don’t do this, enough women do it to make it a concern. And the fact that we only talk about women doing this isn’t because no men are willing to deceive their partner, it’s because biology doesn’t really make this kind of deceit an option for men.
One article in The Spectator questions whether it matters if a man is tricked into raising a child that isn’t his. The author calls DNA tests an “an anti-feminist appliance of science” and laments that “the one thing that women had going for them has been taken away, the one respect in which they had the last laugh over their husbands and lovers”. She somehow thinks that feminism means letting women do whatever they want, without concern for morality or ethics or giving men choices in their lives.
Australian feminist writer Clementine Ford just says that paternity fraud is “not a thing”.
My suggestion is that paternity fraud should be considered a violation of men’s reproductive rights, and that we should no longer put such a low priority on protecting men from paternity fraud and its consequences. If a report came out that 3% of all babies at hospitals were swapped and given to the wrong mother, it would be considered a major scandal and rightly so. Being unwillingly tricked into raising a child that isn’t your own is a major injustice. As one article describes, to most men the idea of unwittingly raising another man’s child “wouldn’t just be a theft of the love, effort and time that they put into the relationship, but would affect them on a primal level, almost as deeply as if their own children were to be taken from them”.
There are a few main changes that could be made to address the problem. First, we could change policies on disclosure of paternity fraud during routine testing and treat it as an issue of the father’s dignity and livelihood rather than the mother’s privacy. Second, we could stop requiring child support from men who’ve proven no relation to the child. In terms of a connection to the child, he’s no different from a random person on the street except that he was the victim of deceit, but it’s insulting and cruel to say that this gives him obligations. (Some progress has been made in this area—see Georgia.) Third, any restrictions on access to paternity testing (referring to France, and any other jurisdiction that has similar policies) should be done away with.
Another possibility that would make all of these irrelevant is mandatory paternity testing at birth. This would provide a very strong deterrent to paternity fraud happening in the first place, eliminating the need to address the problem after the fact and inform men or allow them to get out of child support obligations. On his blog Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson (professor of economics at George Mason University) supports mandatory paternity testing at birth, pointing out that almost all states already perform newborn screening for a 30+ conditions.