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World Policy Journal

A N A L Y S I S | CONSTRUCTING FAMILY

DADDY ISSUES: A
girl with pigtails blows petals
LATERJAY

from a flower. A boy dressed


in a lion’s mane growls. A prin-
cess waves a sparkling wand

“RESPONSIBLE toward a pink castle. This animated


spot debuted on televisions across

PATERNITY” AS
Costa Rica, but it isn’t for children.
The brief clip is a public service an-
nouncement, and it’s directed at

PUBLIC POLICY IN their parents. As bouquets of hearts


float across the screen, a voice in-

LATIN AMERICA
forms viewers: “With the law of re-
sponsible paternity, moms can re-
quest the registration of their son or
daughter’s father.”
NARA MILANICH

8 Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Fall 2017 © 2017 World Policy Institute DOI: 10.1215/07402775-4280160

Published by World Policy Institute


World Policy Journal

“RESPONSIBLE PATERNITY”

The voice goes on to Mexican governorship, asked women voters at a


explain how a mother can June rally near Mexico City, where she pledged
ensure her child has a legal to back a responsible paternity law. “You can go
father, in just a few easy to the other side of the planet, but if it’s your
steps. At the child’s birth, child, it’s your child, and you’re responsible.”
she must provide the pre- Costa Rica’s law was championed by then-
sumed father’s name and President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, a conserva-
address to a hospital of- tive Catholic and outspoken opponent of gay
ficial. If the man doesn’t rights, but it was also enthusiastically support-
appear in court within 10 ed by the government women’s ministry and
days, he is automatically grass-roots feminist groups. Responsible pater-
registered as the father. If nity policies garner support from across the po-
he doubts his paternity, the litical spectrum and appear to have few, if any,
man can request a free DNA public detractors. Who, after all, could object
test, paid for with public to better dads? But history suggests that these
funds. If the test is positive, policies are not as benign as they might seem.
the process has concluded Paternity may be a private relationship, but it
successfully. The child has is always connected to political and economic
a father—at least in the forces. The embrace of responsible fathers by
eyes of the state. Latin American policymakers may have less to
The 2001 law in Costa do with protecting the interests of poor moth-
Rica was the first of its kind, ers and children than with advancing the politi-
but “responsible paternity” cal agendas of neoliberal states.
has since become a watch-
word across Latin America. OPT-IN PATERNITY
The term describes a slew The origins of responsible paternity lie in the
of policies to track down region’s unique family patterns and their rela-
biological fathers and hold tionship to class, economics, and the state. Latin
them responsible for their children born outside America is historically Catholic, but its citizens
of marriage. Laws similar to Costa Rica’s have don’t always conform to the nuclear-family
passed in Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras structure preferred by the Church. In the early
in recent years and are under debate in Mexico 20th century, the region had the lowest rates
and the Dominican Republic. In Brazil, a public of marriage and the highest rates of extramari-
outreach campaign dispatches civil officials and tal birth in the world. (So-called “illegitimacy”
DNA kits to remote communities. Think tanks rates ranged from 20 percent to 60 percent of
and United Nations agencies promote responsi- all births, depending on the country; in Europe
ble paternity. “Every person can decide whether they were in the low single digits.) Informal
to be in a couple or not, but what happens if unions, female-headed households, and chil-
you do a DNA test and it’s your child?” Josefina dren raised by single parents were common, es-
Vásquez Mota, a candidate for a high-profile pecially among the poor and working class.

NARA MILANICH is an associate professor of history at Barnard College. Her scholarly interests include modern
Latin America and the histories of family, gender, law, and social inequality. Her book, “The Birth of Uncertainty,”
a social and political history of paternity testing, will be released by Harvard University Press in 2018.

FALL 2017 9

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The region’s entrenched social inequality economic and political liberalism. Paternity law
fostered these arrangements. Poor people lacked enshrined precepts of privacy, private property,
the economic means to form stable households, and free individual will—at least for men.
and with no property to pass to children they This vision of paternity wasn’t unique to
had little incentive to marry. Norms of endoga- Latin America. It had antecedents in ancient
my limited marriage to one’s own class or racial Roman law and drew more immediate inspira-
group, even though relationships were frequent- tion from the French civil code. (Napoleon had
ly formed across them. This too encouraged in- famously declared, “society has no interest in
formal unions and illegitimacy. the recognition of bastards.”) But because of the
But family law promoted a much narrower ubiquity of informal relationships in the region,
view of what counted as kinship. The legal reg- the consequences of this view were particularly
ulation of paternity is a case in point. Accord- far-reaching. Law created categories of children
ing to the 19th-century civil codes that formed with radically different rights to familial sup-
the basis of modern family law in Latin Ameri- port, patrimony, and a patronym—in short, to
ca, men became fathers under two conditions. familial belonging. It likewise distinguished be-
One was through marriage: Husbands were tween two kinds of mothers, only one of whom
always considered the fathers of their wives’ could claim the privileged status of legitimacy.
children. But for children born outside mar- Family offered social and material value to its
riage, paternity could only be established if a members, but it was an entitlement to which
man formally recognized his son or daughter or only some had access. These distinctions were
made a public demonstration of fatherhood— particularly pronounced among the poor and
by showing affection toward his offspring, for members of disadvantaged racial groups. Some
example, or providing financial support. observers would come to lament such rank dis-
Paternity, in other words, existed apart crimination, but most saw it as unavoidable.
from procreation. In contrast to maternity, it As Chilean statesman Eliodoro Yáñez argued in
was made, through marriage or deliberate rec- 1924, such legal precepts were necessary for
ognition. Paternity was thus defined as a social “peace and public order, the stability of families
rather than a biological relationship. And it was and the stability of fortune.”
volitional; men had to opt in.
This conception of paternity exacerbated “A NEW CULTURE OF PATERNITY”
gender and class inequalities. It severely re- By the mid-20th century, however, economic
stricted, and sometimes prohibited, the right changes had begun to reshape families. In
of unmarried mothers and extramarital chil- wealthier countries, such as Argentina, Brazil,
dren to file paternity suits and claim financial Chile, and Uruguay, industrialization created
assistance. Fathers were thus empowered at the jobs that allowed more men to support wives
expense of children and men at the expense of and children. State-sponsored social security,
women. Wives were privileged over unmarried health, and insurance programs incentivized
mothers, legitimate children over illegitimate marriage by making informal and illegitimate
ones, and formalized families over informal families ineligible for benefits. Marriage rates
ones. While many families strayed from Catho- rose and extramarital births declined. By the
lic teachings, secular family law nevertheless 1960s, in Chile, the share of children born
upheld the Church’s commitment to protecting outside marriage dipped below 16 percent,
marriage and the “legitimate” family. It also took from a high of nearly 40 percent in the 1920s.
its inspiration from the 19th-century ideals of We often consider stable, patriarchal, nuclear

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“RESPONSIBLE PATERNITY”

families to be relics of tradition, but in Latin and the responsibilities of society and the state
America they were products of modernity, cre- to protect their interests. Across the region,
ated by economic modernization and the social advocates mobilized “truth,” “justice,” and
welfare state. the fight against “impunity”—mantras of post-
That embrace of formal families proved authoritarian human-rights campaigns—in sup-
short-lived, however. Beginning in the 1990s, port of the idea that all children had a right to a
neoliberal economic policies—deregulation and family and an identity. That framing continues
privatization, in particular—led to the decline of today. “This is a human rights issue,” argued
formal jobs and to rising unemployment rates Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, vice president
among men. These policies also generated new of the Dominican Republic, in a newspaper edi-
jobs for women, albeit exploitative and poorly torial in 2014. “It concerns the legal and emo-
paid ones, often in lightly regulated free-trade tional protection of the future of our country.”
zones. Female-headed households multiplied These new ideas and institutions laid the
and marriage rates again declined. Today, Latin groundwork for the political concept of “re-
America once again has the lowest rates of mar- sponsible paternity.” Policymakers increas-
riage in the world, and non-marital childbear- ingly came to believe that poor mothers and
ing (once called “illegitimacy”) is more common
than ever. More than 70 percent of children in
Chile, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru are born to
unmarried mothers. In Colombia, Panama, and FAMILY OFFERED SOCIAL
the Dominican Republic, the figure exceeds 80
percent. (Compare these statistics to famously AND MATERIAL VALUE TO
liberal Scandinavia, where rates hover just over
50 percent.) As the Economic Commission on
ITS MEMBERS, BUT IT WAS
Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLA), an
AN ENTITLEMENT TO WHICH
ONLY SOME HAD ACCESS.
influential U.N.-affiliated think tank, has not-
ed, the “disassociation of reproduction from
marriage” is a defining characteristic of 21st-
century Latin America—although, as we have
seen, it is hardly a new one. children, and society as a whole, would benefit
Politics of the late 20th century also shaped if fathers had legal and financial obligations to
the evolution of families. The authoritarian dic- their offspring. Here was a historic refutation
tatorships and civil strife of the Cold War era of discrimination against unmarried mothers,
gave way to efforts to democratize political sys- illegitimate children, and informal families as
tems and civil society. In Chile, feminists who part of an attempt to reduce poverty and in-
helped defeat the Pinochet dictatorship adopt- equality and modernize society. As Rodríguez,
ed the slogan, “democracy in the nation and the former Costa Rican president, said of his
in the home.” Governments across the region country’s 2001 paternity reform, “It was a
created women’s ministries to design and ad- change in 2,500 years of law dating back to
vance policies promoting gender equity. Chil- Roman times.”
dren’s rights, too, gained political currency. In For such a momentous shift, however,
Brazil, activists helped push through constitu- many of the new policies are in practice re-
tional reforms and a model child-rights code markably simple. While mothers once found
that radically redefined the rights of children it nearly impossible to designate their child’s

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father due to complex, protracted, and expen- paternity law discriminated against certain cat-
sive bureaucratic hurdles, the reforms make egories of women, children, and families, then
proceedings straightforward and free. Costa its reversal may portend greater equity in gender
Rican mothers need only fill out a form in the relations, the family, and society.
hospital after giving birth. The new policies also And yet responsible paternity policies are
make it easier for mothers to secure child-care less revolutionary—and less innocuous—than
payments. Last year Honduras established a na- they first appear. For one, they continue a long
tional registry of fathers owing child support; tradition, in Latin America and elsewhere, of
those on the list are unable to open bank ac- blaming “disorderly” families for social ills.
counts, obtain credit cards, or start a business. Proponents of responsible paternity have held
Public education campaigns led by government fathers culpable for vices as diverse as poverty,
ministries produce colorful pamphlets featur- child labor, delinquency, violence, drug traf-
ing cartoons of men bathing babies and playing ficking, and the youth gangs that have caused
with children, to celebrate the virtues of what hundreds of thousands of people to flee Central
one Chilean brochure calls “active paternity.” America. “When our children grow up being
In its most ambitious form, responsible pater- able to count on a paternal figure, an identity
nity implies, according to an ECLA report, the and a name, as adolescents they won’t have to
creation of a “new culture of paternity” char- look to gangs for the psycho-social stability and
acterized by responsibility, commitment, and emotional reaffirmation they never had in their
emotional intimacy. homes,” Cedeño de Fernández, the Dominican
And for those who don’t embrace father- vice president, wrote in her editorial. Such rea-
hood willingly, there’s always DNA. If a man soning attributes the cause of complex social
disputes his paternity or the mother is uncer- problems to the personal behavior of poor and
tain of the father’s identity, the law typically non-white families rather than to the structur-
mandates genetic testing. The expensive pro- al conditions in which these families live.
cedure is well-advertised and paid for with Putting fathers at the center of public
public funds in at least a dozen countries. policies concerning family is a welcome depar-
After Chile permitted children born outside ture from the usual focus on mothers, but it
marriage to identify their fathers in 1998, an- has paradoxical effects. Responsible paternity
nual genetic tests at the government-funded policies often assert that children without le-
forensic lab jumped from 120 to 10,000 in gal fathers lack a true identity. Together with
a decade. In the Brazilian state of Rio Grande this distinctly patrilineal understanding of self,
do Sul, a DNA-testing campaign in the early the policies also reinforce a narrow, biogene-
2000s resulted in a testing boom: Paternity tic definition of paternity. Promoting the cen-
tests, once rare, were administered to 7 per- trality of the father also tends to assume that
cent of all newborns. a two-parent, heteronormative household is
These policies herald an unmistakable trans- the ideal. This conception of family is at odds
formation in how paternity is defined. Once so- with contemporary society: In Latin America
cial and volitional, paternity has been recast as today, there is growing recognition of same-
biological and obligatory. At least in theory, men sex unions and rising divorce rates. More im-
can no longer decide when to be fathers; they portant, this vision does not reflect the lives
have certain duties, financial and emotional, of poor and working-class Latin Americans,
to all the children they engender. This idea has whose families are often non-biological, non-
potentially radical implications. If 19th-century nuclear, and female-headed.

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“RESPONSIBLE PATERNITY”

Yet these initiatives have united the strang- Despite the remarkably broad support for
est of bedfellows. Many feminists and child- responsible paternity, certain voices are con-
rights activists eagerly support the measures spicuously absent from this chorus: those of
because they challenge nearly two centuries poor and working-class mothers and fathers.
of patriarchal law and discrimination against Advocacy for responsible paternity originated
unmarried mothers and their children. The with politicians, policymakers, and activists,
“irresponsible exercise” of paternity, notes the not with the people these policies presume to
Center for Studies for the Progress of Women serve. Those in positions of power tend to as-
and Gender Equity, a feminist research group sume that households need fathers and that
affiliated with the Mexican legislature, rep- biological progenitors are always the most ap-
resents “a form of economic and emotional propriate partners and caretakers. But women
violence against women.” The Chilean Center do not always agree. In the decade after Costa
for Women’s Studies condemned discrimina- Rica passed its paternity law, only a third of
tion against extramarital children as an “anti-
democratic aberration.” But social conserva-

IT IS NO COINCIDENCE THAT
tives also endorse these policies. Catholics and
evangelicals—an increasingly influential con-
stituency in parts of Latin America—identify
with their embrace of a patriarchal, hetero- RESPONSIBLE PATERNITY
normative family. In 2007, Marcelo Crivella,
a prominent evangelical politician in Brazil, HAS GAINED ASCENDANCE
introduced a bill obliging mothers to disclose
IN AN ERA OF DOWNSIZED
STATES AND SOCIAL
paternity, arguing that the child’s right to that
knowledge trumped the mother’s right to pri-
vacy. He cited the U.N.’s Declaration of the
Rights of the Child and research by a feminist
sociologist to make his case.
DISINVESTMENT.
Such policies also appeal to neoliberal sen-
sibilities because of their emphasis on person- single mothers took advantage of the legisla-
al responsibility and individual accountability. tion to pursue paternal recognition. Govern-
In Mexico, representatives of the neoliberal, ment officials there and elsewhere have been
business-friendly Partido de Acción Nacional, perplexed by women’s apparent ambivalence
including Josefina Vázquez Mota, have agitated to policies that, at least on paper, are designed
for responsible paternity initiatives for years. to benefit them. They have assumed that
(Before her recent gubernatorial candidacy, mothers are either unaware of the policies or
Vásquez Mota was her party’s presidential don’t understand their advantages. When the
nominee, and her platform included a similar Brazilian Public Ministry approached 1,144
proposal.) “In the interests of bolstering self- mothers of “fatherless” children last year,
reliance among the population,” write social only 89 chose to open proceedings. The min-
scientists Nikki Craske and Sylvia Chant, “‘the istry doubled down with a “campaign of con-
family’ has increasingly been emphasized as sciousness-raising” to educate the public on
a means of strengthening grass-roots ‘social children’s “right to a father.” A publicity and
capital’ and bolstering survival in conditions marketing team designed a radio jingle and
of economic insecurity.” posters for buses.

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Perhaps the problem lies not with moth- of visiting dignitaries sat at a table decorated
ers’ lack of understanding, but with the idea with flowers and flanked by responsible pater-
of responsible paternity itself. The notion of nity posters, and a packed house thanked the
enforcing fatherhood is both strikingly ambi- visitors for coming to the underserved commu-
tious and excessively narrow. It aims to revo- nity. But then residents stood up one by one
lutionize cultural beliefs and behaviors sur- to raise a series of issues that had nothing to
rounding parenthood but largely sidesteps the do with derelict fathers—inadequate housing,
dynamics by which women and men become policy brutality, neighborhood crime, under-
parents. Much of Latin America has high rates funded schools. As historian Sueann Caulfield
of adolescent pregnancy, limited access to notes, part of the attraction of responsible pa-
contraception, and no access to safe and le- ternity is that so many of the other issues faced
gal abortion. While feminists across the region by poor communities “are much more difficult
continue to campaign for reproductive rights, for the public ministry to solve.”
responsible paternity legislation tends to elide It is no coincidence that responsible pa-
these controversial issues. ternity has gained ascendance in an era of
Meanwhile, poor people often have very downsized states and social disinvestment. In
different ideas about what the state’s priorities Latin America as elsewhere, poor families have
should be. In Brazil, officials have brought mo- been enlisted to fill gaps created by states that
bile civil registration and DNA-testing services have withdrawn from social provision. Just
directly to hundreds—possibly thousands—of as the family is expected to take on a greater
poor neighborhoods and far-flung localities. burden of care for its members, the region’s
After each visit officials report statistics on pa- policymakers have discovered the father. This
ternity recognitions obtained, child-support discovery may serve less the women, children,
agreements signed, and DNA tests adminis- and men at whom these policies are targeted,
tered. In 2010 residents of a poor neighbor- and more the exigencies of political economy.
hood in the city of Salvador in northeastern In the end, the impetus for responsible pater-
Bahia state met with public ministry officials nity may lie not in the shortcomings of poor
in conjunction with one such caravan. A panel fathers but in those of contemporary states. l

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