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Florida Ends 'Scarlet Letter' Adoption Law

The state had required women putting children up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in newspapers to notify the fathers.

May 31, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Gov. Jeb Bush signed the repeal Friday of a Florida law that required women putting a child up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in newspapers if that would help locate the biological father.

Now, under a replacement measure enacted by the Republican governor, men who believe they may have fathered a child will be urged to enter their names in a confidential paternity registry so they can be contacted if their offspring are offered for adoption.

The old law, which passed the Florida Legislature two years ago, was quickly dubbed the "Scarlet Letter Law," after the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne novel in which protagonist Hester Prynne is forced to wear the letter "A" for the rest of her life after committing adultery in Puritan New England.

The Florida law was furiously attacked by critics across the ideological spectrum, from liberal television host Phil Donahue to the conservative editorial columns of the Wall Street Journal.

Last month, a three-judge state appellate panel in West Palm Beach ruled that the law's provision that could force women, including rape victims and minors, to make details of their sexual lives public in newspaper legal advertisements was an unconstitutional invasion of privacy.

"That's one of the great things about writing laws," state Rep. Mark Mahon, a Republican, said Friday. "You go in with the best of intentions, and well, here we had the Wall Street Journal blasting us, saying someone might suggest Florida lawmakers were smoking wacky substances."

Mahon, a Jacksonville family-affairs attorney who voted against the original law, was enlisted by the state House's Republican leadership to draft a replacement bill. The new measure was unanimously approved by both chambers of the GOP-controlled Legislature this spring.

Both of the laws, Mahon said, were meant to make adoptions as "airtight as possible" by minimizing last-minute challenges from a biological father, as well as challenges a father might bring after an adoption has been made legal.

To track down as many missing biological fathers in adoption cases as possible, the law approved under the 2001 overhaul of Florida's adoption system required a mother to publish her name, age and physical description, the name or description of any man she suspected might be her child's father, and the dates and places in newspapers in any city or county where the child might have been conceived.

Lawmakers had overwhelmingly approved the bill, citing a three-year fight over Baby Emily, whose father, a convicted rapist, had contested her adoption. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of Emily's adoptive parents in 1995.

The old measure became law without the signature of Bush, who had noted numerous problems with it.

Opponents said the publishing requirement made many unmarried mothers feel like criminals.

"The old law left the burden on the mother," Mahon said. "As a practical matter, a whole lot of these men didn't want to be found."

The measure signed into law Friday in Tallahassee shifts the burden of protecting the father's rights to the father himself, the lawmaker said.

"We've created a paternal registry with teeth," Mahon said. "You forfeit your parental rights if you do not register."

Under the old law, Mahon said, adoptions had been dropping in Florida, with some mothers going to other states where they wouldn't be forced to disclose details of their intimate lives in the newspapers.

Some critics also blamed the old law for a rise in the number of abortions performed in the state.

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, praised the changes that were enacted into law Friday.

"Privacy rights of women are protected, and this might encourage more adoptions," Campbell said of the new law. "It didn't serve the purposes of the state to violate women's privacy."

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