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Bid to give fathers more rights sparks an important discussion

Should it be assumed fathers are willing and able to take on their parental rights and responsibilities unless proven otherwise?

And is it assumed to be in a child's best interest to know who their father is?

Both questions lie behind a petition brought to the Scottish Parliament by 27 year-old Ron Park, which calls for a variety of changes to the laws governing parental rights. Essentially, Mr Park wants fathers to be guaranteed the right to be part of a child's life unless deemed unfit parents.

Earlier this week the public petitions committee considered more than a dozen responses to his petition, many of which expressed concern it appeared to prioritise the rights of the father.

In law, the assumption is that the child's rights are always paramount. But is there an assumption about men here too, and an unfair one?

Of course, some men use custody battles to pursue an agenda against their child's mother. Some are violent partners, whom neither mother nor child should have to tolerate.

But MSP Jackson Carlaw MSP chided Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham over part of her response. "It would not be fair," she wrote to the committee, "if women who had been raped or who had become pregnant through a brief relationship had to go to court to have parental rights and responsibilities removed."

Conceiving a child as a result of a one-night stand or transient relationship is irresponsible. But the irresponsibility is on the part of both parents, as is the responsibility. It is at the very least arguable that a man should have automatic parental rights in that case, and shocking they should instead find themselves bracketed with rapists?

This was one of four matters the committee agreed to consider further. The others are a proposal that mothers should have to give a reason for not providing the father's name when registering a birth, that courts should have the power to order DNA tests, and a call for the Scottish Law Commission to consider whether all fathers should automatically have parental rights and duties.

Elaine Sutherland, child law professor at Stirling University, and other respondents say the problems affect far fewer than the up to 160,000 fathers and 295,000 children Park claimed.

Still, nearly 50,000 Scottish children don't have their father's name on their birth certificates. We don't currently know how many of these are because of rape or incest, because the father is genuinely unknown, or simply on the mother's whim.

That alone suggests there is a problem.

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