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PERSPECTIVE ON CHILDREN : No Wedding, No Rights for Fathers : Conversely, men wouldn't be economically responsible for children born out of wedlock.

August 12, 1993|DENNIS PRAGER | Dennis Prager is a KABC radio talk-show host and writes and publishes the quarterly Ultimate Issues

Whatever one's position on biological and adoptive parents, it was not possible to regard as anything but awful the government's taking of a 2-year-old girl from her family and handing her over to two people she has never known.

Is there a way to prevent such an evil from recurring--as indeed it is at this very moment in San Diego?

Yes, if we make marriage the only basis for fathers' rights and responsibilities.

Society must announce to men: If you don't marry the mother, you have no claims on her child; you have nothing to say if she wants an abortion or wants to give the child to adoptive parents.

Conversely, society announces to women: If you aren't married to the father, you have no claims on him for support.

Next week, the San Diego Juvenile Court will decide the fate of another 2-year-old, Michael Stenbeck. The legal circumstances are even more appalling than in the Jessica DeBoer case.

Michael was adopted by John and Peggy Stenbeck at the request of Michael's birth mother, who continues to fight for Michael to remain with the Stenbecks.

But the birth father, Mark King--who was never married to the mother, who impregnated her when she was only 15 and he was 21, after, she says, he plied her with liquor, and who was arrested for bruising her in a fight--wants to take Michael away from the Stenbecks. King's history includes alcohol and drug abuse and attempted suicide. Moreover, the court-appointed psychologist argues against King and for the birth mother and adoptive parents.

As a result of the possibility of being taken away from his parents, the child reportedly "has regressed with toilet training and returned to drinking with a bottle."

Yet thanks to a concern with "fathers' rights," the California Supreme Court ruled in another case in February, 1992, that an unwed father can contest an adoption arranged by a birth mother as soon as he learns of her pregnancy. And the California Senate is considering legislation by Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) that would give unwed fathers up to 90 days after birth "to begin showing concern and thus get custody."

As Robert Fellmeth, University of San Diego law professor and director of the Children's Advocacy Institute, notes, courts are regressing to a 19th-Century view of children as property, in the name of fathers' rights.

As a result of decades of preoccupation with group rights and with individual rights with no commensurate individual obligations, we have become a society that now legally enshrines selfishness. Courts and lawmakers have ceased asking, "What is good for society?" And, as the DeBoer and Stenbeck cases show, they certainly do not ask, "What is good for the child?"

That is why irresponsible, absent fathers now have more rights than children do. The solution to this problem--and an important part of the solution to the even greater problem of children born out of wedlock--is simple: Give men legal rights and obligations to their offspring only when they are married to the mother.

Our civilization needs to tell men: If you are not married, you are regarded as no more than an inseminator. We believe in marital rights, not in sperm rights. The message is equally forceful to women: You have every right to sleep with a man who is not your husband, but just as he has no claims on your child, he also has no obligations toward it.

Without this, the ruined lives of Jessica DeBoer and Michael Stenbeck will be only the first in increasing numbers of children whose irresponsible birth fathers will seek to reclaim them. We can prevent such horrors and make a dent in the millions of children born out of wedlock by reasserting the centrality of marriage.

Lawyers may object, because this solution largely dispenses with them. The law would be clear to a 10-year-old: With marriage, you have all parental rights and obligations; without it, you have none. But lawyers more interested in society than in clients--and such lawyers do exist--will recognize the need for the marital solution.

Most men will welcome this, because most men are responsible fathers. Women's groups may object because unmarried mothers could no longer make economic demands on their impregnators. But most women know that marriage is good for children, and feminists will be pleased to have unwanted men out of women's lives.

Since the 1960s, American society has questioned every value from the past. Some of them are worth keeping, such as, the best way to raise children is by married parents. Children should have a greater claim to society's laws, compassion and rights than inseminators.

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