N.J. judge cites women's rights in barring unwed dad from child's birth

Patients alone get to decide who is at their bedsides, a New Jersey judge has ruled. Fathers have no court-established right to be in delivery rooms – or even be notified – when their children are born, he said.

A New Jersey judge has put down a new marker in the long history of childbirth, ruling that expectant moms have the right to bar unwed dads from the delivery room.

In a first-of-its-kind case, involving New Jersey resident Rebecca DeLuccia and her estranged fiance, Steven Plotnick, Superior Court Judge Sohail Mohammed ruled that patients alone get to decide who is at their bedsides, while "putative" fathers have no legal right to be in the room – or even be notified – when their children are born.

The case was settled Nov. 19, 2013, when Judge Mohammed decided in favor of Ms. DeLuccia, who followed oral arguments via teleconference from the delivery room, in a dispute over whether she was required to inform Mr. Plotnick when she went into labor or to allow him access to the baby after birth. The written ruling explaining the decision was released Monday. 

"Any interest a father has before the child’s birth is subordinate to the mother’s interests," Mohammed wrote. "Even when there is no doubt that a father has shown deep and proper concern and interest in the growth and development of the fetus, the mother is the one who must carry it to term."

Mohammed based his ruling on privacy precedents set in two landmark abortion cases.

The decision reverberates beyond these two New Jersey parents, adding a new wrinkle to the changing mores of parenthood at a time when more babies are being born to unwed mothers and when many American men are seeking stronger bonds with their children (including being present when babies first enter the world). 

The thing is, it wasn’t too long ago – think “Mad Men” – that dads were more than content to smoke cigars in the waiting room, and doctors were glad to let them. But that began to change in the late 1940s, as part of a movement to de-institutionalize the birthing process and to ease what women described as a process in which they were “alone among strangers.” One father, writing in a men's journal, urged men to “grab hatchets and chop through the partition.”

In that way, men played a role in the societal push to transform birth from an antiseptic process in white-walled operating rooms to the homey birthing centers that are prevalent today.

Men’s role in the “experience of easing labor … led to its logical conclusion: being present in the delivery room,” Judith Walzer Leavitt, a gender studies expert at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of “Make Room For Daddy,” wrote recently in a commentary. “The men were happy to be there.… ‘Not pretty, but beautiful in the sense of a God-given natural beauty,’ [one father wrote about the experience]. Couples shared the event, strengthening their bonds, and men made a meaningful start to fatherhood.”

But if cultural tradition has come to honor the presence of men at their children's births, no courts have found that fathers have any right to witness the occasion.

For Plotnick, that lack of access was at its heart “unfair,” his lawyer told the New Jersey news media, because he didn’t have the right to bond with his biological offspring, as the mother did.

“This is cracking new ground,” says Bruce Eden of Dads Against Discrimination, in New Jersey, who argues that the majority of custody and divorce settlements favor the wife or the mother, while courts view fathers primarily through the prism of financial support.

“The fact is, 50 percent of that child is your biology, your DNA, and you’re entitled to have a relationship if you want, especially if you’re going to be asked to foot the support bill," he says.

The court system is 40 years behind the times when it comes to recognizing fathers’ rights, especially when all Plotnick wanted was to be notified of his child’s birth and be able to bond with it in a room adjoining the delivery room, Mr. Eden adds. (Plotnick has said he won’t appeal given that DeLuccia eventually let him hold the child.)

Mohammed wrote that he ruled for the mother because of two landmark abortion cases – 1973’s Roe v. Wade and 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey – in which the US Supreme Court outlined a legal framework whereby a pregnant woman has a more compelling right over her body and the unborn child than the father.

“[A]ny mother is under immense physical and psychological pain during labor,” the judge wrote in his ruling. "The order the father seeks would invade her sphere of privacy and force the mother to provide details of her medical condition to a person she does not desire to share that information with."

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