What’s a Father?

by Barbara Free, M.A., LPCC

     As most readers of this newsletter know, far fewer men than women are involved in adoption support groups and adoption reform activities. Even fewer birth fathers and adoptive fathers are involved. Some of this can be attributed to the greater reluctance of most men to get involved in groups, or to share thoughts or feelings that might make them appear vulnerable, but there may be more to it than that. It is also true that some birth fathers have no idea that they are, because they were never informed of a pregnancy. Others would not consider themselves birth fathers because they did not participate in the decision to relinquish a child, or simply because they did not raise they child. Still others were “sperm donors,” and did not think of that as fathering a child in any way.
     Two recent news stories are concerned with these various issues, and call into question exactly what it means to be a father. This is not about greeting card sentiments of what a father means to a child, but about legal definitions, rights, and responsibilities.
     A local man is currently suing an adoption agency over a child whom he sired being relinquished and adopted without his notification or permission. We do not know the real details of this unfortunate circumstance, and will not comment on that. The birth father contends he was not notified of the child’s birth at the time, and would have wanted custody himself, as the relationship had ended. A judge has said he “could” have known about the pregnancy and did not assist the mother. In other New Mexico cases, we have read that there is a little known “Putative Father Registry,” and courts have said that a man who might possibly have sired a child should register immediately after having sex with the possible mother. Not only is this registry little known, let alone how to contact it, it is unrealistic to expect that every young (or not young!) man who has sex with someone to whom he is not married will automatically contact this registry the next day! While we can advise people to be responsible in their sexual activities, use contraception, etc., the truth is that humans will continue to have sex, sometimes impulsively, sometimes irresponsibly, sometimes under the influence of mood-altering substances, or just the mood-altering moon, and some of those encounters will result in pregnancy. This does not even address the possibility of rape, and it’s fairly certain a rapist is not going to call up a registry the next day to notify them of his possible fatherhood.
     In former times, agencies, courts, attorneys and birth mothers were less than meticulous in notifying birth fathers. Birth mothers were told to write “Father Unknown,” although that was rarely the case. Notices of intent to relinquish were published in obscure newspapers to help fulfill the law while making certain the birth father would never see the notice. Many men were never informed out of fear, anger, or shame. Some were informed but chose not to respond, out of fear, shame, or indifference. Some were told “Don’t worry about it; I’ll handle this myself.”
     I today’s society, it’s a different story. Not only are birth fathers expected to be notified and have some legal say about relinquishment, birth mothers are required and pressured to name the father if they apply for any type of assistance for themselves or the child, even if they protest that notifying the birth father might endanger the birth mother or the child. We don’t know what the legal situation is when the conception was the result of date rape or stranger rape.
     The other recent news story concerns several children whose mothers were clients at a particular sperm bank in California, and, as it turns out, conceived children with sperm “donated” (the man is usually paid, so he’s not real a donor) by the same person, known to the mothers only as #3066. The mothers of these children began to notice certain clusters of personality traits, learning disabilities, and other problems in their offspring, although they had been told the donor was completely healthy and superior in every way. One mother set up a Website and was able to find other mothers with the same story. They contacted the sperm bank but were given no help, only the donor’s code number, which turned out to be the same. The Web site is Donor Sibling Registry, run out of Nederland, Colorado, if any reader can benefit from that information. The mothers have set this up so their children can find each other, which they report has been extremely helpful to the kids to know each other. The sperm bank will only say that #3066 has been placed on “restricted status,” meaning women can still use his sperm but would be informed that problems could arise. One wonders just how much this man “donated,” if there is still a supply available!
     The point here is not whether it’s wise to conceive a child through a sperm bank, or whether it’s a good idea to raise a child without a father, but rather, what is a father? We’ve never thought of sperm donors as fathers, but they have indeed passed on their DNA, and today, people believe they are entitled to know about that. They certainly are not those greeting card fathers, but they still have responsibilities toward anyone conceived with their sperm. This has become an adoption issue in reality, with problems arising from the same policies of secrecy and lies that continue to plague the rest of the adoption world.
     Before participating in donating or receiving sperm through a sperm bank, or before engaging in sex that could result in pregnancy, persons need to consider these things. That said, we are still left with situations where solutions must be found, and we still don’t always have a definite answer to the question, “What’s a father?”

Excerpted from the October 2006 edition of the Operation Identitiy Newsletter
© 2006 Operation Identity