This, from the birth father’s perspective, is the strange story of “Baby Emma,” a newborn whisked out of Virginia by her mother to be adopted by a couple in Utah, which has unusual laws that seem to circumvent fathers’ rights in others states:
“My name is John Wyatt, the birth father of Baby Emma Wyatt, born February 10, 2009 in Woodbridge, Virginia. I have never held my daughter in my arms or even been allowed to see her in person. My daughter has never had her Daddy hold her and say “I love you” to her, or hug her and kiss her. Baby Emma and I have been denied those precious moments together.
“Imagine this happening to you: as a 20 year old, you have been friends with the mother since second grade and you have dated since middle school. You anxiously make preparations with the mother of your child, your childhood sweetheart, for the arrival of your new baby. You go to the doctor’s appointments, you rub the mother’s belly and feel your baby moving and kicking in the womb. Both of you pick out the name. It’s so exciting, you can hardly wait for the arrival of your new baby!! You look forward to what you expect to be the happiest moment of your life, to be with the mother and baby at birth…Both of you make plans on raising the baby together. “One cold evening in February, 13 days before the due date, you talk by telephone and you reconfirm your love for each other and discuss the baby’s future in your lives….The next day, you call your girlfriend and there is no answer. Throughout the day you call her getting more worried with each call. But, still no answer. The next morning you rush to the hospital to see if something went wrong…You ask at the reception desk for her room number and you are told to wait. About 15 minutes later, a hospital administrator tells you there is no patient by the mother’s name. And then, you find out that your baby was born 12 days early. My daughter, Emma, was born and taken out the “back door” of the hospital to be adopted without my knowledge or my consent. You were not allowed to be in the delivery room. You did not experience sitting in the waiting room waiting, and waiting and waiting for the nurse to come out and tell you, “Congratulations, Mr. Wyatt, you have a daughter” or “a son”. I was not allowed to even see my daughter in the hospital before she disappeared.
“I waited and waited to see her that night. She was hidden in a hotel in a room reserved with a stranger’s name. An attorney and a Utah adoption agency representative met with her that evening and had her sign away her rights to my daughter. I never did see her. Not that night, not ever.
“I was horrified to find out later that my daughter had been taken from the State of Virginia to Utah to be adopted. I soon learned about Utah’s adoption laws and the biased laws they have against biological fathers and father’s rights.”
[You can see the whole story on Wyatt’s website.]
Thus began a long legal battle in which John Wyatt tried to get his daughter back, or at least to have visiting rights. I have no comment on the legal issues; when states duke it out over conflicting laws and jurisdictions, matters of right and wrong are often an afterthought. The ethical issues are clearer.
Did Emily Fahland, Baby Emma’s mother, act unethically? Obviously, if John Wyatt’s account is anywhere close to the truth. She misled him, she deceived him, she lied to him; she was brutally unfair to him, and cowardly in the bargain. But John Wyatt’s blithe and idyllic description of his anticipated parenthood and his pain at his ultimate betrayal leave out a basic ethical principle: accountability. Wyatt’s plight arises entirely from the fact that he seems to have never heard of the concept of marriage, which would have served four important and culturally reinforced objectives:
- It would have established a binding commitment on his part to care for and be a parent to the child
- It would have given the mother security that she would not have to raise the child alone.
- It would have ensured that, at least at the beginning of her life, Emma would be part of a stable family unit.
- It would have guaranteed him legal rights.
It is irresponsible to intentionally or carelessly create a child outside of marriage. Dumb and reckless acts have consequences, and Wyatt’s failure to agree to (or perhaps insist upon) marriage as a condition precedent to conceiving was unfair to all concerned—his daughter, his girlfriend, and himself.
For reason’s unknown, Emily got cold feet. Maybe she realized she wasn’t ready for motherhood, since she wasn’t ready for marriage. Maybe she concluded, during all those long talks with John, that he was a deluded, naive man-child who she couldn’t trust. Maybe he’s a nutcase; maybe she’s a nutcase…maybe they both are nutcases, drawn together because of their mutual nuttiness. Whatever the reason, there is a prima facie argument that they are both irresponsible, and once Emily decided she wasn’t inclined to raise Emma, the options were reduced to John, raising the child by himself, or a stable couple in Utah.
As far as Baby Emma, now named something else, is concerned, Emily made the caring, responsible choice. Did she do it the right way? No. Hell no. Is John justifiably angry and understandable feeling betrayed? Sure. But my sympathy for him is limited by his continuing omission, as he writes about his plight, of the advisability of marriage anywhere on his website. If what happened to him serves as a cautionary tale for other long-time couples in their twenties who are tempted to “anxiously make preparations… for the arrival of [their] new baby” to remember that they have an ethical obligation—to their planned child, as well as society—to ensure that he or she will have a family to enter upon delivery, then the entire ugly episode will be well worth the trouble.
I believe a biological father who won’t commit—legally as well as emotionally—to a binding relationship with the biological mother before conception should have no more rights in his offspring’s care and parenting than a sperm donor, unless the mother chooses to grant him some. He should only have obligations, such as financial support. The fewer incentives society has for couples to be irresponsible, the better. The fewer out-of wedlock children the better. The fewer single parent households, the better. Emily’s resorting to the Utah adoption system accomplished all three. Brava.
Yes, I feel sorry for John Wyatt, but not that sorry. Love is wonderful, but love without responsibility is a ticking bomb. He had it within his power to prevent this whole mess, simply by having a baby the old-fashioned way, by saying “I do” before “Let’s do it.” Next time, John, get that license first.
Clarification: The furious comments generated by this article require one further comment. I have nothing but admiration for single parents who, for whatever reason, find themselves raising a child without a partner and dedicate themselves to the task. They often do a spectacular job, and their courage and stamina is miraculous. I also believe it is reckless and irresponsible to seek single-parent status when one does not have the resources, support network and ability to meet that challenge, or when a two-parent arrangement is feasible.
[Much thanks to Clare Palmatier for suggesting the issue, and I hope she’s not too mad at me.]