Next week, an important moment will occur in the general trend toward recognizing the societal importance and legal rights of fathers.
On March 28, the New York State Assembly's Children & Families Committee is scheduled to hear Bill A330 on shared parenting. The bill seeks to establish "the presumption in matrimonial proceedings for awarding shared parenting of minor children in the absence of an allegation that shared parenting would be detrimental to the best interests of the child."
In short, a parent seeking sole custody (most commonly the mother) would assume the legal burden of proving why a shared arrangement would harm the child.
Father's rights advocates view New York as "a battleground state" not only because of the influence its policies exert but also because New York is one of the few states to resist a national trend toward statutes favoring joint custody.
Because A330 is vehemently opposed by mainstream feminist organizations like the New York Chapter of the National Organization for Women, the bill's hearing may become raucous. But, given that almost three dozen State Assembly members have endorsed the bill as sponsors or co-sponsors, A330 stands a good chance of passing.
Shared custody is only one of several fathers' rights issues that are appearing with increased frequency in the courts and in the media. It is perhaps inevitable that, as the image of men gradually moves out of the shadow cast by mainstream feminism, that the image of fathers improves as well. The emerging complaints of fathers are likely to force a redefinition within family law over the next few years.
Some of those complaints and responses to them are as follows:
--The court-ordered child support paid by non-custodial parents (usually men) are often unreasonably high and do not reflect the custodial parent's income.</b>
A Georgia state law requiring that calculation of child support be based on the incomes of both parents goes into effect on July 1st. The Atlanta Journal Constitution comments, "estranged couples are already crunching numbers and contacting lawyers to figure out the effect on them."
Randy Kessler, an Atlanta family law attorney, states "The fuses are being lit."
--Responsible non-custodial parents are often denied access to their children through barriers erected by the custodial parent; 'relocation' is one such barrier.
On Feb. 2, the California Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Yana that a non-custodial father attempting to prevent an out-of-state relocation did not merit an evidentiary hearing on how it would affect his son. The Brown decision effectively reverses the 2004 LaMusga v. LaMusga ruling by which the California Supreme Court permitted a change of custody to a father as the result of a mother's move to Ohio.
--Birth control advances have focused upon women even though effective male birth control is feasible.
The contraceptive injection called RISUG has been tested with success for more 25 years by Professor Sujoy K. Guha at the Indian Institute of Technology, tests which the National Institute of Health have replicated. One injection can render a man infertile for up to 10 years.
Some blame the slow development of male contraceptives on possible resistance by Pharmaceutical companies to offering an option less expensive than female birth control. Others blame politics for the focus on women.
--Through abortion, women can opt out of motherhood; fathers have no similar option over parenthood. They have responsibilities without rights.
Some fathers' rights advocates argue simply for a legal right to withdraw from the responsibilities of fatherhood through a relinquishment of parenthood; this demand underlies the current so-called Roe v. Wade for Men lawsuit.
Others argue a more controversial position: namely, that aborting a child desired by the father transgresses his rights. Both positions are controversial and will meet stiff opposition but the latter one contains the seeds of an all-out gender war.
--Men who discover they are not the biological father of a child are, nevertheless, often required by courts to continue paying child support.
The battleground here seems to be state courts and legislatures, who demonstrate little consistency. In 2004, the Second District Court of Appeal of California overturned a paternity judgment against a man being forced to pay support for a child whose DNA tests proved he was not biologically related.
In Michigan, a 'duped dad' is currently going to court to be freed of the support payments that have reportedly driven him into bankruptcy and "destroyed" my life." A favorable ruling is far from assured. Michigan has no law requiring relief for false paternity and many judges rule to continue payments "in the best interest of the child."
--Fathers who wish custody of newborns put up for adoption are often left uninformed until it is too late to exert their parental rights.
The New York Times reported on March 19 the story of Floridean Jeremiah Clayton Jones who "discovered" that his former fiancée was pregnant just three weeks before the baby was due, when an adoption-agency lawyer called and asked if he would consent to have his baby adopted."
He said 'no,' but because he had not filed with the required state registry for unwed fathers, Jeremiah lost the right to adopt his own child.
His child lost grandparents, aunts and cousins as well as a father. (Another problem posed by current notification procedures is the risk of fathers challenging adoptions they did not consent to after they have occurred, a situation that can be devastating for the child and adoptive parents.)
In essence, states that impose obscure and intrusive registry requirements are asking men to tell the state about every woman they sleep with in case one becomes pregnant.
It is not clear how the foregoing (and other fathers' rights complaints) will be resolved. In some sense, that's the point of this article. A sea change is occurring in how society and the legal system is viewing the need of children for their fathers and the longing of fathers for their children.
Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.