Politics

The Scarlet Ad

Occasionally, a well-meaning piece of legislation turns out to embody the law of unintended consequences.
by | January 2003

Occasionally, a well-meaning piece of legislation turns out to embody the law of unintended consequences.

That's the case with a Florida adoption bill passed in 2001. One section of the 104-page law deals with mothers who want to give up a child for adoption but who aren't sure who the father is. It requires a humiliating ritual: Women have to publish a newspaper ad in every county where they had sex. The ad must include their address, age, race, weight and hair color, along with the names and a physical description of all their sexual partners for the past year.

Supporters of the measure had a noble goal in mind: By serving dads official notice of a pending adoption, they hoped to prevent cases where a father, years after the fact, asserts his parental rights and tries to take the child away from an adoptive family. Instead, the law had the effect of publicly tarring mothers, some of whom, it turned out, were as young as 12 years old. Many women were humbled to broadcast the embarrassing details of a promiscuous past; a few who had been raped were mortified to have to publicize it. Jeanne Tate, a Tampa adoption attorney, says the ad requirement is "reminiscent of "The Scarlet Letter."

The provision was an honest mistake, according to state Senator Walter "Skip" Campbell, one of the law's sponsors. He predicts that the legislature will strike it in this year's session, and replace it with a "father's registry." That system, in use by about half the states, requires dads who want to maintain paternity rights to make that known with the state. "Remember, Florida used to be the adoption fraud state," Campbell says. "We don't want it to become like that again."

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