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March 13, 2014

Who belongs in the delivery room?

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Should a father be allowed in the delivery room for the birth of his child, over the mother's objections? A New Jersey judge said no last November, in a ruling that was released in writing earlier this week. "Any interest a father has before the child's birth is subordinate to the mother's interest," Judge Sohail Mohammed wrote. That has to be the right call. At the same time, I can understand why fathers' rights groups see the ruling as discrimination: It privileges motherhood over fatherhood.

Rebecca DeLuccia and Steven Plotnick agree that they started a relationship in late 2012 and that DeLuccia learned she was pregnant in February 2013. Plotnick proposed and they got engaged. By September, they had broken up. Plotnick wanted to be involved with the pregnancy and with the child. Which is good, right? It's what we want fathers to do. But in this case, for whatever reason, Plotnick lawyered up. In October, Plotnick's lawyer wrote to DeLuccia, and then she got a lawyer too, and over the next month letters went back and forth about who would sign the birth certificate, who would be at the hospital for the birth, and - as Mohammed delicately puts it - whether there would be "litigation to resolve the matter if it could not be resolved amicably."

In November, Plotnick sued, saying DeLuccia was refusing to let him sign the birth certificate, tell him when she went into labor or allow him to be present for the delivery. DeLuccia responded by denying the first two accusations but saying that yes, she "will request her privacy in the delivery room," as the judge writes. She said she would put Plotnick's name on the list of visitors for after the delivery, though.

That sounds like a pretty good compromise to me. Once the baby is born, it's about the baby. Before that, though, it's about the mother, too - there is just no way to separate her from the fetus. That's the basic reality of nature that should allow a mother to decide the circumstances of her labor and delivery. "It is an inescapable biological fact that state regulation with respect to the child a woman is carrying will have a far greater impact on the mother's liberty than on the father's," the Supreme Court said in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the case that reaffirmed Roe v. Wade and also held that states can't require women to inform their spouses that they're having an abortion. If a woman doesn't want her ex in the room while she gives birth - an ex who she's not talking to and who after all is suing her - then he can wait in the hallway. He'll still have plenty of opportunity to bond with his newborn.

The same logic of biology convinced me that a New York judge was wrong last year when she barred Sara McKenna, a former Marine and firefighter, from moving from California to New York, because she wanted to go to Columbia University, when she was seven months pregnant. The father of McKenna's child was the Olympic skier Bode Miller, and he tried to block her from moving across the country by asserting his paternal rights before his child was born. An appeals court quickly reversed that order. Again, fathers just cannot have rights over fetuses that interfere with a woman's freedom of choice and movement in this way. Once the child is born, the law can accord equal rights to fathers and mothers. Before birth, it just cannot.

I recognize the pathos and irony here in turning fathers away. To resolve the dispute between Plotnick and DeLuccia, Mohammed turned to New Jersey's parentage act, which he pointed out was designed "to help families deal with the problems posed by fathers who seek to avoid paying child support." In other words, deadbeat dads. Steven Plotnick has been anything but that, and with any luck his child's life - and maybe DeLuccia's, too - will be the better for it. But the impulse to want what's best for his child could have led Plotnick to give DeLuccia her space rather than (figuratively) pounding on her delivery room door. As Mohammed pointed out, New Jersey and federal law also protect DeLuccia's privacy rights as a patient. And he rightly notes that dealing with Plotnick's uninvited presence could "add to an already stressful situation" in a way that "could endanger both the mother and the fetus." Surely Plotnick would agree that the baby's health is paramount here.

Plotnick's lawyer now says that her client "never asked to be in the delivery room, only to be able to see the baby at the hospital as soon as possible after the birth," according to the Newark Star-Ledger. If that's all Plotnick had asked for in court, I'd sympathize. Though then it would be hard to see what he had to sue over, since DeLuccia said she would put him on the visitor's list. Maybe he thought he couldn't get that concession without the suit. Or maybe he just got carried away in a tide of paternal desires. But being a good father when your child is still in utero means thinking about his or her mother's well-being, too. When men can have babies, then they can decide who comes into the delivery room. Until then, the limits of biology limit their rights.

 

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