Make Men Responsible for their Children

Annual number of Costa Rican births 1986-2008. The vertical line is at 2001, when Law 8101 was enacted.

            A chance encounter in a parking lot gave me the idea for this month’s essay. “Why not make a man responsible for the cost of raising any child he fathers?”

            “That’s a great idea!” I said, then mentioned that Costa Rica has a law that helps achieve that goal. Like many Latin American countries, Costa Rica has a history of many unintended and teen pregnancies. The law has helped improve that.

            Law 8101 “Ley de Paternidad Responsible”, to prevent “deadbeat dads”, was passed in 2001. The law allows an unmarried new mother to state the name of the baby’s father. If the man protests that he is not the father, he can elect to have a DNA test. If the test shows he is the father, he is financially responsible for child support until age 18, or older when his offspring is studying. The law labels a man who refuses to have the test done as having “malicious behavior”. In that case, the man is assumed to be the child’s father and he is responsible to pay to raise the child. If the test shows that he is not the father, he is off the hook and he can sue the woman for false accusation.

            In order to make this law work, Costa Rican officials set up a state-of-the-art DNA laboratory. Apparently, their laws have always favored the woman in paternity cases, however 1801 goes several steps further. In the past the onus of proof of paternity was on the woman, and many women were unable to afford the DNA testing or legal fees. Now, fortunately, women do not have to pay to prove paternity.

            The law includes some interesting provisions. Although Costa Rican Social Security pays for the DNA testing initially, if the tests prove that the man is the father, then that cost is subtracted from his bank account. However, if a mother makes a false claim of paternity, she is stuck with the bill. Finally, a man who does not formally acknowledge his responsibility for a child still has to pay child support—but he loses visitation rights.

            Costa Rica is aggressive in pursuing child support. Moreover, the amount of money is significant—it can be a quarter of a man’s income, or even half if he has fathered multiple children. There are even special courts to enforce child support laws.

            The legislature strongly supported this law, as did the president in 2001, Miguel Rodriguez Echeverría. Their main motivation was to ensure the intergenerational wealth transfer from fathers to their children. Costa Rica still has a paternalistic society where most of a family’s wealth belongs to the man.  Decreasing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases were welcome unintended consequences of Law 8101.

            The US system for DNA testing and getting fathers to pay child support doesn’t seem to be as effective as in Costa Rica. A friendly person at the Colorado Department of Human Services wrote that almost $18 million is collected every month of what is owed to families,  in our state alone. Unfortunately, only 6 out of every 10 support dollars gets paid that are owed, meaning that parents monthly evade paying about $12 million of what they owe their children. To my surprise, I also learned that not all parents owing child support are men: 13% are women.

            Has the Costa Rican law struck terror into the hearts of philanderers? It turns out that only a small percentage of men accused of fathering a baby are required to get a DNA test; most new fathers are happy to be responsible for their children. However, there was a significant decrease in the total number of births—a significant step down in the slow decline of birth rates Costa Rica has been experiencing. This peaceful nation, where people are among the happiest and healthiest in the world, has a law that has helped to reduce unplanned pregnancies and encourage parental responsibility.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2021


Give Thanks for Good News

An unintended pregnancy can change a young woman’s life. Worldwide, there are 120 million unintended pregnancies each year.

            The world our three granddaughters will inherit will be different from the world that we have known. I hope that their world in half a century is not too ghastly—and there is reason to support that hope.

            The risk of extreme overpopulation seems to be waning. The global TFR (the number of children a woman will bear) is close to replacement. Also, the number of global unplanned births approximates the net number of people added to the planet each year.

            In 2020 the global TFR was 2.3. In 1990, just 30 years ago, the TFR was almost one child larger, at 3.2. 

            The global TFR was over 5 when I was born in 1943 and has been dropping ever since. For a country with a low child mortality rate, replacement TFR is about 2.1. That is one child to replace the mother, another to replace the father and one tenth to account for children who don’t live to reproductive age. That number is higher where the child mortality rate is high—2.2 or 2.3. Fortunately, child mortality has dropped considerably in the past 3 decades, which is why we use 2.1 for the goal of ZPG (Zero Population Growth). We have made amazing progress!

            Well, if the TFR is so close to ZPG, we don’t need to worry about overpopulation, right? WRONG! There are three problems with that contention. Most important is that the planet is already overpopulated. We have almost 8 billion people on Earth, whereas 3 billion would be sustainable. To get our population down to a sustainable number without massive mortality will require a TFR close to 1. Second, it has taken many years to lower the TFR to 2.3, and most of the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked. It will be difficult to get it to 2.1 or below. Third, population momentum will keep growth going for decades after we reach ZPG since there will be many young people who will be starting their families. We will need a TFR significantly less than 2 in order to reach a sustainable population. Today’s children, including our granddaughters, will be happier and safer if the world becomes less crowded rather than more so. 

            The number of unintended (or unplanned) pregnancies globally is about 120 million each year. What is an “unintended pregnancy”? Social scientists recognize that there is a spectrum of desire. At one end of the spectrum are our two sons who were definitely planned—and also very much loved. At the other end of the continuum might be a pregnancy that results from rape during war.

            The global rate of unintended pregnancy has dropped from 79 to 64 per thousand reproductive-aged women from the early 1990s to the late 2010s. The global abortion rate also dropped slightly in the same 25-year period. Safe, effective contraception has helped lower both of these rates. Of those 120 million unintended pregnancies, many will be miscarried and others will be aborted, so perhaps 80 million are carried to term.

            It is coincidental that the number of unintended births is close to the net growth of our population. If we can make family planning services available to all people, there is a good chance that global population will stabilize or start to decrease. Because we consume the most, we in richer countries must have the fewest unintended pregnancies. Remember, consumption multiplied by the number of people determines environmental impact. Therefore, unintended pregnancies cause the most impact in rich countries, such as the USA. In this same 25-year period, the unintended pregnancy rate has dropped by almost half in Europe and northern America, some of the world’s richest countries.

            Unfortunately, there is also bad news. Politicians are not very interested in investing in family planning, although it has been shown that every dollar spent would save many dollars for maternal and newborn care—and save many lives of women and children.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2021