Since You Asked: "Whose Baby Is It?"

By Cary Tennis

By Salon Staff

Published May 23, 2002 7:09PM (EDT)

Read the column.

I read your column and really enjoy the advice you give. I'm a professor of ethics at a small college, and I love reading advice columns because they are the practical side of the theory I love studying and teaching. I often read them and try and pick out the Utilitarian, Kantian, or Egoistic undercurrents running through the question and response.

Most of the time I think your answers are spectacular. You have an amazing ability to balance the needs, desires and interests of the letter writer with those of the other people involved. Except now, or I wouldn't be writing this letter.

Your response to the woman unsure of her baby's paternity leaves the feelings of the husband and possible father by the wayside for the benefit of the wife (who you say will eventually get over it) and the baby. One way I teach my students to approach ethical situations is to simply put themselves in the shoes of another person and imagine how they would want to be treated (very Kantian). So can I ask you to do the same thing: Put yourself in the shoes of the husband and possible father who one day finds out that the child he thought was his is really not and, worse, stems from a betrayal perpetrated and maintained by his wife and friend. Can you see the look on his face as he rewrites all the years he spent with his wife? With this child? Everything that he thought was certain is going to be taken away from him in an instant. I just get the sense that aside from betraying her husband, she now stands poised to rob him of his time, something he might want to make use of for himself.

This man deserves to know the truth and the opportunity to make a choice about how he wants to spend his life. He could forgive his wife and raise the child regardless of who the father is. He could decide that the betrayal is too much and try to find his happiness with someone else. Doesn't he deserve that option?

The reason I feel so strongly about this question is that it raises one of the hardest questions about ethics and interpersonal relationships: When we discover an injury or slight from the past, how do we respond? Should we respond as we would have then? Can we know how we would have responded then? We're not the same person, and time has probably clouded our impression of who we were. Should we take into account all the intervening days, weeks, months, or years? It's not a question I have an answer to, but it is a question that haunts me.

Sorry, I just think your response was too one-sided this time. No injury will come to the baby if the parents hash this out now. In fact, the child might be better off if the parents get this one figured out before he or she arrives, and they can either rededicate themselves to one another without the pressure of a new baby, or begin getting on with their separate lives (not that this has to be the case).

By the way, my father is adopted, and we've recently established contact with his birth family. The desire and need to know who one's parents are is something not to be trifled with. I saw a 57-year-old man look at a picture of his mother for the first time. My mother was sitting across the table from me; it was a very familiar face. I can't imagine how my father felt, but I can remember the look on his face. Oh, the things we take for granted.

Please keep up the good work, and keep the interesting and thoughtful answers coming.

--Steven A. Benko

Cary Tennis has consistently failed to fill the shoes of Garrison "Mr. Blue" Keillor in the advice department lo these many months, but this week he has crossed the line into reckless irresponsibility.

I can't blame the guy for not writing as well as his predecessor most of the time, and I know that all advice column responses should be taken with a grain of salt (or a few pounds' worth, if you're reading Dan Savage). But this week's response to the woman who is pregnant with either her husband's or her friend's baby just reeked of naive, mealymouthed insensitivity. She clearly stated that the baby would be a financial burden, that she already felt ambivalent about it because of the questionable paternity, and that she was considering termination.

Tennis skipped right over these harsh but practical considerations and rambled on about the intricacies of revealing the true father to the child as an adult (good plan!), and about the mystical serendipitiousness of life, blah blah blah. Get serious! This woman should seek professional advice, starting with Planned Parenthood, to assess her realistic options. Tennis' advice was essentially "Go with it, have the baby, see what happens, isn't life quirky." Easy for him to say! This isn't another thirtysomething lonelyhearts crisis, this is a potential lifetime of agony for an entire family (on top of the pregnancy, labor, and delivery bit). Sic another copy editor on this guy finally, and get somebody with a less rose-tinted worldview to give the advice. Sheesh.

-- Emily Durand

You are completely off-base with your antediluvian attitude of the husband's moral responsibility. That is nothing more than a carryover attitude from pre-tech times granting permission for a woman to commit fraud on an unsuspecting man.

It's no longer "Mama's baby, Daddy's maybe" today, and I look forward to when every newborn's DNA fingerprint is checked at the hospital for a match with the ostensible father. According to Baker and Bellis' 1989 University of Liverpool cuckoldry rates study, a pinch over one in five children are not biologically related to their purported fathers.

Men's lives have been financially and emotionally destroyed over straying women who -- at their whim -- yank children from a husband with court approval by abruptly announcing, after years have passed, that the children are not his, or slam some clueless guy with 10 years' back child support out of the blue.

It's not those women's privilege and it not their right.

You might have a moral leg to stand on if every man was required to affirm explicitly during his wedding vows that he agreed to care for any changeling his wife brought into the marriage, but as things stand now men wed mostly with the tacit notion that the wife will remain sexually faithful.

The children those women bear during the marriage that men agree to nurture and support are presumed, in the majority of the men's minds, to be their own.

Fraud is fraud and it's high time women were no longer handed a free pass.

--James J. Brannon, Equal Families Foundation

I really don't see how you can say that one person should be allowed to make lifetime decisions for another person, especially when her decision will be based on deceit. The idea that a woman's night of pleasure and betrayal should turn into a lifetime of emotional and financial obligation for her husband is appalling.

In a day and age when society has decided it is wrong to impose nine months of pregnancy, let alone parenthood, on an unwilling woman, you are saying that the decision is up to a man's unfaithful wife whether he should undertake a lifetime of emotional and financial obligation to a child that is not his own? And that somehow being willfully ignorant of who the father actually is and not taking a DNA test somehow absolves her from telling her husband the truth?

There are only two moral possibilities for that woman. Tell her husband what happened and let him decide whether the fetus should have a DNA test or have the test and tell him if he is not the father.

I happen to believe that men and women are endowed by their Creator with equal rights. What if the husband's dream is to take off to the South Pacific and be a painter -- or go to New York and try to be a writer -- but he feels he can't because he thinks he has fathered a child and that therefore his destiny is no longer his alone to decide? On a simpler plane, what if he wants to divorce his wife for some other reason -- infidelity, perhaps? -- but feels he has to make a go of it because of the child who he thinks is his?

--Seth Chandler

Man, are you going to get letters about your advice to the woman who isn't sure who fathered her child. I won't go on and on about your thoughts on what the child deserves vs. your lack of consideration for what the husband deserves, since I know others will address this.

Instead, I want to observe that you're not reckoning on the stress coming toward this woman from the lifetime of deceit you counsel. You imagine this to be like the affairs that you have advised people not to reveal to their partners. But it's a little different when you are diapering the proof of the affair every day, let alone saving for the college education of the proof of the affair. Do you really think it will be OK if this woman considers her child-rearing with her husband, one of the most intimate acts a couple performs, to be based on lies? Lots of lies, every day for years? Do you think that won't affect her in some way? You get to answer this letter and move on to the next one, but she has to live in this story.

In fact, you treat the whole issue rather like a story, imagining with a novelist's eye that the child will someday find out the truth of its parentage and react with philosophical wonder. Have you actually spoken to any people who have learned as adults that their parentage was not what they thought? What I've seen is that the pain they endure before reaching an objective calm about it all (assuming they ever reach such a point) can lead them to wound both themselves and others. Love your column, but I was shocked by your answer to this one.

--Brian Nelson

I think you blew it in your answer to Whose Baby Is It? You basically counseled this woman to deceive her husband for as long as she can get away with it. This is not the basis for a good and happy marriage. It's also not a great situation for raising a child.

Painful as it is, she has to suck it up and confess to her husband what happened. If he doesn't care, OK. If he does, then a paternity test is in order. If her husband isn't going to support what could be someone else's baby, she should know now so she can figure out how she feels about it.

Lies of this magnitude always come back to bite you in the butt. Does she really want to live with the fear of being found out?

How we act in tough situations such as this is the true measure of our moral character. I hope this woman chooses to live courageously -- for both her sake and for that of her unborn child.

--Kathryn McCabe

Salon Staff

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