The other side of the story


Several weeks ago, Melbourne man Liam Magill — under the watchful eye of the media — lodged an application in the High Court to reinstate damages awarded him in connection to his discovery that he was genetically unrelated to two of his three kids. Such cases of ‘paternity fraud’ have become cause celebres for the father’s rights movement that views them as symbolic of the situation of contemporary men — deceived, denied and exploited — in an era of divorce and historically unprecedented levels of female sexual and reproductive freedom.

It’s time for a reality check.

The truth is that much DNA paternity testing is requested by women of men who know full-well they are the biological dad, but have acceded to their lawyer’s advice to deny paternity to delay or avoid child-support payments for the twelve to eighteen months it takes their ex to get a court order.

While men’s rights activists spare no expense in vilifying women (read: their ex-wives) for enforcing the legal — not to mention moral — right of children to support after marriage breakdown, women have no choice in the matter. The State can, and does, cut women off from all forms of support if they withhold the name of the biological father or — should he challenge his biological paternity — fail to provide proof in the form of DNA test results. In the meantime, women are left with no means to support their children.

In a groundbreaking study of DNA paternity testing, Swinburne researchers have shown that many paternity tests are initiated either by men hoping to avoid child support obligations, or at the behest of the State by women relying on such payments to make ends meet. The data not only undermines the image of mendacious and deceitful women promulgated by hurt and angry post-divorce men’s rights activists, but pours doubt on their wildly inflated incidence figures. Indeed, according to Professor Michael Gilding, suggestions that one in ten parenting dads are not biologically related to their children are urban myths, derived either from poorly conducted studies on biased samples, or PR releases from private testing companies with a clear financial interest in stirring up anxiety among potential male customers. The real Australian figure, says Gilding, is likely to be around 1 per cent.

Women aren’t always the victims, of course. But even in the most hard-luck cases, where married men discover their lack of a genetic relationship to a child by accident (say, in the search for a tissue-match for a critically ill child), women’s situations and choices are far less clear-cut and duplicitous than men’s movement propaganda implies. While the Swinburne research is still underway, Dr Lyn Turney says early results suggest the long-term-secret-lover scenario is the least likely amongst women with more than one partner. More commonly, encounters will be one-off incidents, perhaps with old flames or at drunken parties, or with an old partner in the dying days of a relationship when the new relationship is in its infancy (and expectations of fidelity are reduced or non-existent).

Interestingly, while men’s rights activists are fond of moaning about the gender inequities they suffer in relation to parenthood (they lack the same biological certainty as mothers; they don’t have the final say about abortion), they fail to mention the advantage their physiology affords them when it comes to sexual privacy. Only for women will failed or forgotten contraception expose the trail of private sexual activity and decision-making.

Women’s assessments of whom to have sex with, and when, may be undermined by coercion, clouded by passion or corrupted by a youthful lack of experience and good judgement. Just like men’s. But once a pregnancy is conceived, women with more than one sexual partner and thus able to hazard a guess but not be absolutely certain of biological paternity (a la Kathleen Donnelly) are caught between a rock and a hard place.

They can terminate, a decision that may contravene their desires or values, as well as distress and confound partners that have expressed support for continuing; they can continue the pregnancy hoping the sperm of the man they love and want to build a life with was involved in conception; or they can accept the risk of violence or relationship breakdown if they reveal their recent sexual history and consequent uncertainty of the child’s biological origins. They can take the risk, in other words, of losing a happy relationship with a man they love and who loves them, and rendering their child — in the true sense of the word — fatherless.

None of these choices is ideal; each carries costs to one or more members of the triangle. But what is clear is that if women choose to tell, they are privileging the man’s right to know the genetic make-up of the foetus over the child’s future well-being. While men’s rights activists consistently assert that women who fail to order their priorities this way are fraudulent cheats and liars, more dispassionate observers may be less certain.

Particularly if they agreed that while biological relationships are nice, it is the fulfilment of the commitment to parenting that makes a man a father. A woman’s choice of a man to parent her child — whether made in conditions of biological uncertainty or not — is never an insult, but an expression of love and respect. Men willing to ‘be there’ at the time of conception are a dime a dozen. Far harder to find one willing and able to be a good father.

Men who fail to understand this, and laws that don’t reflect it, completely miss the point.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.