Forty-five states have passed “Safe Haven” laws which allow mothers tempted to abandon or kill their babies to deliver the children instead to emergency facilities for possible adoption. Safe haven proponents insist that the mothers relinquishing their children to safe havens remain anonymous. Researchers have criticized safe havens on several issues. One of those is that they deprive biological fathers of their legal right to care for their children.
William Pierce, founder of the National Council For Adoption, has responded that such a concern evidenced an unrealistic threat to safe haven opponents because fathers would not take responsibility when they lacked knowledge of the pregnancy and had not supported the mother.
This marks the second time Pierce has been completely off-target in articles about how father’s rights are not violated by safe haven laws. The first was in his rebuttal article to the Evan B. Donaldson Institute’s Research Report, wherein Pierce discussed using putative father registries to locate fathers. I deal with each of these errors--the assumption that fathers would not know about the pregnancy and thus not take responsibility, and the belief that enacting putative father registries would satisfy due process--in turn.
The assumption that fathers would not take responsibility
In the most recent article Pierce stated the following in response to concerns about fathers’ rights:
“As if a man who was unaware of a pregnancy, unsupportive for nine months, and absent for the labor and delivery would suddenly develop a sense of responsibility – or as if an abandoned woman is going to turn over her baby willingly to such a man.”
This reasoning is faulty because Pierce makes an argument for abandonment per se; that is, that safe haven relinquishment is, in itself, proof of the father’s abandonment and failure to support, or proof that the father did not know of the pregnancy. But one cannot make such an absolute presumption. It is entirely possible that the father of a child relinquished to a safe haven knew of the pregnancy and contributed, or tried to contribute, support to the mother. This would be especially true where the mother wanted to avoid the father. It is also entirely possible that the father, through no fault of his own, or again through the mother’s own simple efforts, could not be present at the delivery or during labor. He could have been away in the military, for example. Pierce’s incredulity at the idea of a man not knowing about the pregnancy suddenly developing a sense of responsibility is simply a value judgment based on prejudice. Either that or Pierce feels that safe havens fulfill a state interest so compelling (e.g. saving babies’ lives) that the laws override a father’s fundamental right to due process regarding his children and that safe havens provide the least restrictive way of achieving that interest. If safe haven proponents really believe that, then they should come right out and argue it in its proper legal context.
Otherwise, the case law is not devoid of situations involving men who lacked knowledge of a pregnancy and never supported the mother, but who, upon learning of the child’s existence, took responsibility. Besides this, some courts have found that lack of knowledge about the pregnancy spoke against an argument of abandonment because abandonment required intent in the face of knowledge. Thus, while lack of knowledge may not be an excuse for not preserving one’s right to notice, it is not a ground for termination of parental rights. Hence, Pierce’s argument amounts to an attitude of ‘what biological fathers don’t know won’t hurt them--as long as we‘re saving a baby.’ But the fact remains, even fathers who lack all knowledge of the child have a constitutional right to due process.