EVERY SO often, yet another wrenching story of a contested adoption is in the news. Television cameras capture a heartbreaking scene: a frightened, sobbing child being taken away from the adoptive parents, to be handed over to biological parents whom the child has never met. The latest such drama unfolded recently in Jacksonville, Fla., where 3-year-old Evan Parker Scott has been returned to his birth mother after the adoption was annulled because it took place without the birth father's consent.
In these cases, public sympathy is typically on the side of the adoptive parents -- while the unwed father is often assigned the role of villain. He's seen as a feckless good-for-nothing who wants the rights of a father just because he took the trouble to impregnate a woman.
Sometimes, the popular perception may be justified. (Evan Scott's biological father apparently has a history of drug abuse and violence, including toward the mother when she was pregnant.) But then there are the other cases.
Take the story of a New York City police officer identified in legal papers only as Robert O. When his ex-girlfriend found out she was pregnant shortly after their breakup, she decided not to tell Robert and arranged an adoption. Eventually, the couple got back together and married -- and one day, Robert learned that he had a 17-month-old son. His quest for paternal rights ended in defeat in 1992; the courts held that Robert had only himself to blame for not keeping in touch with his former girlfriend and not knowing about her pregnancy.
In 2000, a 19-year-old Iowa man, David Heidbreder, got quite a shock when he found out that his former girlfriend Katie Carton, who had gone to stay with her grandparents in Minnesota after their breakup, had given birth to a girl and put her up for adoption. (Carton had refused to tell Heidbreder where she was but had stayed in touch by e-mail and assured him that she would not give up the baby.)
He filed papers with the Minnesota registry which allows men to claim parental rights and block an adoption. However, he missed the registration deadline -- 30 days from the child's birth -- by one day. He sued and lost.
In recent years, some unwed fathers have been more successful in court, though not in the court of public opinion. Ottakar Kirchner, the father of "Baby Richard," was vilified in the press after he managed to regain custody of his son. The boy was born when Kirchner was away on business in his native Czech Republic; the mother, Daniela Janikova, had decided to break up with Kirchner after hearing rumors of his infidelity. She lied to him that the child had died at birth and repeatedly frustrated his attempts to track down the boy.
Biological paternity isn't everything; but it isn't nothing, either. Where is the sympathy for fathers who lose their children through no fault of theirs? Would we be more sympathetic if a woman's baby were taken away at the hospital and placed for adoption without her knowledge because the birth father signed the adoption papers?
The father in such a case faces a strong presumption of guilt. It is readily assumed that if the mother doesn't want him involved, he's either abusive or terminally irresponsible. In society's eyes, when a man doesn't want to marry his child's mother, he must be a cad; when a woman doesn't want to marry the father, he must be a creep.
People can believe that a man would wage a lengthy legal battle out of spite at his ex-girlfriend; yet many won't allow that a woman could want to deny her ex-boyfriend his child for equally base reasons. We stigmatize and prosecute men who refuse to support their children, but not women who willfully conspire to keep a father away from his child.
It's particularly bizarre to place the burden on the man to find out if the woman is pregnant, considering that she's the one with direct knowledge of her condition. Indeed, if a man took such steps after the woman had told him she wanted no further contact, he could be considered a stalker.
In the end, our society sends men quite a mixed message. If your partner gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, you're liable for 18 years of child support, whether or not you want to be a father. If she doesn't want to be a mother, she can give your child to strangers and there isn't much you can do. Then we complain that men don't take parenthood seriously enough.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.