"Is it yours? If not, you still have to pay!" That statement, plastered on a New Jersey billboard above a picture of a visibly pregnant woman, is enough to make many male motorists slow down in rush hour traffic.
Patrick McCarthy, president of New Jersey Citizens Against Paternity Fraud, the group sponsoring nine of these billboards across the state, says he's just trying to prevent the victimization of other men.
Three years ago, McCarthy found out he was not the biological father of his then-15-year-old daughter. Though divorced from her mother for well over a decade and not intimately involved in her life, McCarthy paid child support for the girl.
When McCarthy, remarried with two other children, petitioned the courts for relief from his financial obligations, he discovered he had little recourse. The DNA test McCarthy paid for could not be presented in court. As far as the state of New Jersey was concerned, McCarthy still bore financial obligations to a child who was not his.
McCarthy testified this week before a New Jersey legislative committee in support of a "paternity fraud" bill, which would allow a man to challenge paternity at any time.
"Some people say 'If you had doubts you should have asked for a DNA test.' I had no reason to ever think my wife slept with someone outside of our marriage. She committed adultery," he said.
Roots in Common Law
Angry men calling themselves "duped dads" are waging a state-by-state battle to change centuries-old laws they say are biased against them. Bills are pending in seven states — Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Vermont — that would relieve some men of paternity obligations based on DNA testing.
Twelve states already have such laws. Last week, California Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a "paternity fraud" bill, saying the measure would only delay child support collection and let some biological fathers wriggle out of parental responsibilities.
The paternity debate is heating up in the courts, too. Two men recently attempted and failed to get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their cases after lower courts ruled they must continue paying support for children who turned out not to be theirs. One, Carnell Smith of Decatur, Ga., is trying to recoup more than $40,000 from his ex-girlfriend after learning three years ago that her 13-year-old daughter is not his.
Statistics on paternity are understandably difficult to come by. Usually DNA testing for the purpose of proving paternity are only performed in cases where there is a reason to doubt a biological family connection.
Supporters of paternity identification bills point to a 1999 study by the American Association of Blood Banks that found that in 30 percent of 280,000 blood tests performed to determine paternity, the man tested was not the biological father.
The presumption of paternity regardless of biology goes back centuries. Most state laws are based on Medieval English common law, which assumed that a married woman's husband fathered all of her children. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this presumption in 1989 when it gave a custodial father rights over a noncustodial biological father.
Despite the courts' leanings, advocates of "paternity fraud" bills say forcing a man to support a child who is not his is fundamentally unfair.
Government: The Relationship Regulator