"Knowledge is bliss"- Towards a society without paternity surprises
by Barry Pearson
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Appendix B: The relationship to Child Support

A key principle behind typical child support systems is: "if people have insufficiently protected sex, and a child results, they have responsibilities towards the child". This has a merit in "justice": the people concerned, knowing the risks, could have behaved differently and avoided the child, hence avoiding responsibility. It also has a merit in "practicality": a paternity test can typically resolve who is responsible, or at least who is not responsible.

This isn't a perfect argument. Some people believe that one or other party carries too much of the risk and responsibility. The price for "insufficient protection" can appear unduly high. Some child support systems (outside the UK) don't stick to this "strict liability" rule. Even when they do, child support systems often have serious flaws in them. But these are matters to be corrected; they do not undermine the basic merits of the principle.

A counter argument to the basic "strict liability" principle is that a "social father", a man who has been helping to raise a child who is not biologically his, perhaps as the husband or male partner of the mother, has somehow set a precedent and accepted responsibility. Sometimes the argument is that there is a bond between the social father and the child, and the child needs continuing support. Sometimes the argument is cruder, and amounts to identifying the nearest man with a wallet. Neither argument has any intellectual merit; and neither argument is just. These approaches historically arose because doubts could not be resolved. They didn't arise in free competition to "strict liability" approaches.

The bond between a social father and a child is based on "hands-on care" while they are together. If it is a precedent for anything, it a precedent for being able to continue hands-on care. Bonding is totally different in nature from paying for someone else to care. Few people would relieve a biological father of child support responsibility just because there wasn't such a bond, so "the bond" is a spurious argument. It is also a counter-productive argument; it is a disincentive for men to help raise children who are not their own. Hands-on care should be treated as a bonus to the child beyond a man's other responsibilities. Men who are willing to accept full responsibility can adopt; lack of adoption should be interpreted as lack of willingness to accept permanent financial responsibility.

The cruder argument in favour of identifying the nearest man with a wallet surely doesn't need lengthy criticism here. Apart from lack of principle, there is the simple fact that somewhere there is the real biological father, and he too has a wallet! Perhaps he simply doesn't know that he has a child, but would want to know, and perhaps he would prefer to have had an earlier chance to be a parent to the child, and vice versa.

Some people have expressed a view that men may use paternity tests to evade their child support responsibilities. In fact, it is impossible, where the "strict biological parentage liability" principle operates (such as the UK), to evade child support responsibilities via a paternity test. If a man is not the biological father, he never had such responsibilities (except in the special case of adoption), so there is nothing to evade! Good quality evidence assists the operation of law, and cannot help evade it. And the corollary of a negative test is that somewhere there is a biological father who legally does have those responsibilities.

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Page last updated: 2 July, 2003 © Copyright Barry Pearson 2002