Should paternity tests become mandatory for all newborn babies? A state legislator in Tennessee thinks so.

This January, State Rep. G. A. Hardaway plans on reintroducing a bill he first presented last year that would require a paternity test before a father’s name is listed on a birth certificate. Under the legislation, the state would pay the costs of the test if the parties are unable to pay. But mandatory paternity testing can have unintended consequences, and as they say, the devil is in the details.

At first glance, this seems like a good idea with good intentions. There are many fathers who refuse to step up to the plate and take care of their responsibilities. And certainly the black community is no exception. After all, the absence of fathers is helping to destroy the black community, and we are in a crisis situation. A 2007 study by the Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of African-Americans believe fathers are doing a worse job than 20-30 years ago, as opposed to 48 percent of Latinos and 44 percent of whites. Further, in a 2007 survey by the National Fatherhood Initiative called “Pop’s Culture: A National Survey of Dads’ Attitudes on Fathering”, 91 percent believed there is a father-absence crisis in America.

Some of the rationales for mandatory paternity tests are that it would help to resolve child support disputes, provide peace of mind to the parents, and allow for an accurate medical history of the child.

Another good reason for such a law is that it would protect the rights of children. Proponents believe that every child has right to know his or her father. “Well, at some point society has to weigh the rights of the parents against the rights of the child,” Hardaway said. “And I think this is one of the basic inherent rights that should go with the child.”

But the testing also raises questions about family privacy. There are some cases where the mother – for her own safety and the safety of her child – might not want the father to know that he is the father. And perhaps there are situations where the father should not be involved in the life of the child at all. Cases of domestic violence, rape and incest immediately come to mind.

Moreover, in the case of the Tennessee proposal, DNA testing would apply to everyone, unmarried and married couples alike. It would stigmatize mothers, and suggest from the beginning that they are unfaithful to their partner. This would serve as an affront to women. Plus, what would happen if the father dies before the test could be administered?

Currently, in Tennessee and many other states, a man is presumed to be the father if he is married to the mother or has claimed paternity, among other things. This is called the presumption of paternity.

Those who support mandatory DNA tests would point to cases of paternity fraud—where a woman makes a dishonest claim that a particular man fathered her child—as evidence that changes are needed in the laws. But is it really worth it to potentially turn the birth of every single child into another episode of the Maury Povich Show? It shouldn’t have to get that deep.

And in cases where states would not pay for the DNA test for people who could not afford it, this could create further obstacles for unmarried fathers to assume responsibility for their child.

As the crisis of fatherless children grows, legislators and policy makers are not likely to turn away from this issue. They should be commended for listening to the desperate pleas from their constituents, and coming up with solutions to attack the problem. But laws should be fair, sensible, and carefully written. And even great laws have their limits. A statute does not have the power to make a father spend time with his child, be there for his child, or do as much as he can for his son or daughter.

However, there is a role for government to play. The current recession is placing stresses on families and working people, making it harder to support their children, and with no relief in sight. In the National Fatherhood Initiative survey, work demands and financial problems were listed as top barriers to being a good father. In addition, 67 percent of respondents said that government should do more to assist fathers.

Regardless of your opinion of paternity testing, we can all agree that creative solutions are required for the serious crisis of absent fathers. The issue of mandatory paternity testing helps to shine a light on the problem, but it will take more than a DNA result to make better fathers.