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  • Daddy Issues: “Responsible paternity” as public policy in Latin America
  • Nara Milanich (bio)

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A girl with pigtails blows petals from a flower. A boy dressed in a lion’s mane growls. A princess waves a sparkling wand toward a pink castle. This animated spot debuted on televisions across Costa Rica, but it isn’t for children. The brief clip is a public service announcement, and it’s directed at their parents. As bouquets of hearts float across the screen, a voice informs viewers: “With the law of responsible paternity, moms can request the registration of their son or daughter’s father.” [End Page 8]

The voice goes on to explain how a mother can ensure her child has a legal father, in just a few easy steps. At the child’s birth, she must provide the presumed father’s name and address to a hospital official. If the man doesn’t appear in court within 10 days, he is automatically registered as the father. If he doubts his paternity, the man can request a free DNA test, paid for with public funds. If the test is positive, the process has concluded successfully. The child has a father—at least in the eyes of the state.

The 2001 law in Costa Rica was the first of its kind, but “responsible paternity” has since become a watchword across Latin America. The term describes a slew of policies to track down biological fathers and hold them responsible for their children born outside of marriage. Laws similar to Costa Rica’s have passed in Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras in recent years and are under debate in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. In Brazil, a public outreach campaign dispatches civil officials and DNA kits to remote communities. Think tanks and United Nations agencies promote responsible paternity. “Every person can decide whether to be in a couple or not, but what happens if you do a DNA test and it’s your child?” Josefina Vásquez Mota, a candidate for a high-profile Mexican governorship, asked women voters at a June rally near Mexico City, where she pledged to back a responsible paternity law. “You can go to the other side of the planet, but if it’s your child, it’s your child, and you’re responsible.”

Costa Rica’s law was championed by then-President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, a conservative Catholic and outspoken opponent of gay rights, but it was also enthusiastically supported by the government women’s ministry and grass-roots feminist groups. Responsible paternity policies garner support from across the political spectrum and appear to have few, if any, public detractors. Who, after all, could object to better dads? But history suggests that these policies are not as benign as they might seem. Paternity may be a private relationship, but it is always connected to political and economic forces. The embrace of responsible fathers by Latin American policymakers may have less to do with protecting the interests of poor mothers and children than with advancing the political agendas of neoliberal states.


The origins of responsible paternity lie in the region’s unique family patterns and their relationship to class, economics, and the state. Latin America is historically Catholic, but its citizens don’t always conform to the nuclear-family structure preferred by the Church. In the early 20th century, the region had the lowest rates of marriage and the highest rates of extramarital birth in the world. (So-called “illegitimacy” rates ranged from 20 percent to 60 percent of all births, depending on the country; in Europe they were in the low single digits.) Informal unions, female-headed households, and children raised by single parents were common, especially among the poor and working class. [End Page 9]

The region’s entrenched social inequality fostered these arrangements. Poor people lacked the economic means to form stable households, and with no property to pass to children they had little incentive to marry. Norms of endogamy limited marriage to one’s own class or racial group, even though relationships were frequently formed across them. This too encouraged informal unions and illegitimacy.

But family...


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pp. 8-14
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