Fatherhood isn't in the genes

DNA tests are confirming men's suspicions of not being their kid's real dad -- but they're still made to pay up

Published November 20, 2009 7:30PM (EST)

A man is supposed to take care of his children. If he gets a woman pregnant, he's expected to step up and take responsibility. But what if that man discovers that the child he thought was his own -- the kid he read to, cuddled and tucked in at night -- is another man's? Then who is responsible for the kid -- the biological father or the nurturing adoptive dad? That is the quandary increasingly being raised by DNA tests. As Ruth Padawer writes in a fascinating cover story for the upcoming New York Times Magazine, the rise of paternity tests -- bought on the cheap online or at local drug stores -- have revealed "just how murky society’s notions of fatherhood actually are." 

Mike L., the lead subject in Padawer's piece, found evidence of his wife's affair with a coworker and decided to have L., his 5-year-old daughter, take a DNA test. The results arrived in the mail: He was not the father. "I ran upstairs, locked myself in the bathroom and cried and dry-heaved for 45 minutes. I felt like my guts were being ripped out," he says. Mike separated from his wife, Stephanie, and began paying her child support because, he says, she claimed Rob, L.'s bio-dad, had refused. Things continued on this way for several years, until he got news that Stephanie would be marrying Rob, and that was too much to bear. He asked a Pennsylvania court to relieve him of parental responsibility, but a judge ruled that Mike was the legal father, not Rob.

Padawer explains, "Once a man has been deemed a father, either because of marriage or because he has acknowledged paternity (by agreeing to be on the birth certificate, say, or paying child support), most state courts say he cannot then abandon that child -- no matter what a DNA test subsequently reveals," she continues. "In Pennsylvania and many other states, the only way a non-biological father can rebut his legal status as father is if he can prove he was tricked into the role -- a showing of fraud -- and can demonstrate that upon learning the truth, he immediately stopped acting as the child’s father." In Mike's case, the judge ruled that he was the legal father because he stuck around even after the DNA test -- in other words, because of love, not fraud.

"I pay child support to a biologically intact family," Mike says. "How ridiculous is that?" Pretty ridiculous when you consider that Rob gets to live with L. and play the role of papa; and Mike only gets to see her on the weekend. As vexing as this case is, though, we hardly want courts to devalue the unbreakable bond that can develop even in relationships without genetic ties. At some point, DNA can become rather irrelevant. The truth is that Mike's utter adoration of L. jumps off the page; he is a doting, indulgent father. L., now 11 years old, still sees him as her daddy and he wants it to remain that way -- he just doesn't want to pay child support to the woman who cruelly cuckolded and defrauded him. As far as the law is concerned, though, he can't have it both ways. There are many different ideas for how to best address the issue -- from limiting paternity challenges to the first two years of the child's life to widespread DNA testing at birth (I picture Maury Povitch being wheeled from delivery room to delivery room: "You are not the father! You are the father!") -- but all are imperfect.

Paternal uncertainty is one of the many biological inequalities of reproduction (see also: pushing a human being out of your vagina) and, as evolutionary psychologists tell it, getting stuck raising some other schmo's kid is a hard-wired male nightmare. But if you had any doubt that we humans are more than our base evolutionary imperatives, this article should convince you: For all his rightful resentment, men like Mike show that family is thicker than blood.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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