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Germany

Fathers' Rights Suffer Setback

German politicians seeking to outlaw secret paternity tests won a first battle on Wednesday, much to the disappointment of fathers' rights groups hoping for greater justice in the areas of alimony and child support.

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Are German fathers getting a raw deal?

The German Federal Court of Justice decided on Wednesday that paternity tests carried out in secret are inadmissible as evidence in a lawsuit. Unless the mother gave her consent for the test, the child's personal rights would be violated, the court in Karlsruhe ruled.

Vaterschaftstest im Genlabor

A lab technician at the "ID-Labor" in Wiesbaden conducts a paternity test.

The decision was welcomed by German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries, who is leading a campaign to make secret paternity tests illegal under a new law regulating the use of genetic data.

"These tests are a serious invasion of the private sphere," Zypries said. "If a man has doubts about his paternity, he should talk about this with the mother."

Campaigners for fathers' rights in Germany say making secret paternity tests punishable would be yet another blow to men who already get the short end of the stick when it comes to laws regulating alimony, child support, and child custody following a divorce or separation.

"It cannot be that, as a woman, I have the right to make my husband pay to support a child that is not his own, or to deny children the right to know who their real father is," said Dr. Karin Jäckel, an active supporter of the fathers' rights movement and author of several books on the subject.

"Men are, in every respect, held responsible for their children under our laws, which is why they have the right to know who their children are."

Modernizing alimony

Vater mit kind Symbolbild

A father walks with his son in a Düsseldorf park.

While the battle over paternity tests continues, Justice Minister Zypries has also announced an overhaul of German laws on alimony. Divorced dads are hopeful that the changes will mean more justice for them.

The growing fathers' rights movement in Germany rejects the stereotype of the heartless man who abandons his family for a new relationship. In reality, they say, the situation is very different. Women file for divorce more frequently than men, and are more often awarded custody of the children.

And in cases where a divorce is contested, fathers frequently become estranged from their children, making it harder for fathers to gain custody rights once the divorce is settled, Jäckel said.

Despite this emotional strain, fathers are still seen as the familial breadwinner, and can often find themselves burdened for life with child support and alimony payments to ex-wives.

"In cases where the man earns a lot and can pay for everyone, there's no problem. But we're seeing more frequently that the man's income isn't enough for everyone," Zypries said in an interview with the women's magazine Brigitte. Ideally, she said, both partners would take financial responsibility for themselves after a divorce.

"A man can't be expected to support his ex-wife for years, especially if she could go back to work, and as a consequence not have the money to support children from a second marriage," she said.

Lack of political reaction

Fathers for Justice Aktion in London Buckingham Palace

A protester dressed as Santa chained himself to the front gate to Buckingham Palace, London, Tuesday Nov. 23, 2004. He is a member of Fathers for Justice, who are campaigning for a change in family law in Britain.

But Jäckel said that those closely involved with the fathers' rights movement are skeptical that their concerns will be heeded by politicians.

Unlike in Britain, where the activist group Fathers 4 Justice has successfully attracted attention to the plight of divorced dads through spectacular stunts, campaigns by similar German groups have "barely registered politically," Jäckel said, adding that ploys aimed at grabbing media attention can make a desperate father's situation even worse.

"I've often seen it happen here that fathers who go to the media to publicize their cases are punished by the judges," she said. "In the worst case, this can even result in their custody rights being taken away. The judges' logic is that dragging a case of unfair treatment into the public eye only damages the child's rights, and that someone who would do this is a bad father."

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