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Parental Rights

A legally recognized parent has the right to make decisions on a child's behalf and the responsibility to provide financial and emotional support for the child. Under the law in most jurisdictions, a child may have two parents (one father and one mother), one parent, or no parents. The identity of these parents can be determined by birth, marriage, or legitimation or paternity proceedings or through adoption. Since the rights and responsibilities attendant on parenthood are so encompassing, the law places certain restrictions on the rights of a woman to conceive a child without the permission of the man who will assume the legal duties of father to the child. The clearest restrictions are the requirements in artificial insemination statutes that a married woman have her husband's permission to be inseminated. Potential fathers have also asked courts to block the implantation of previously frozen embryos, although the absence of statutory guidance makes these cases more ambiguous. Outside of this right to veto certain reproductive procedures that will lead to the bearing of a child, fathers have no legal right to control the mother's medical care. Nor do they have the right to prevent or force a woman to have an abortion or to require that she use contraception. (See Chapter 25.)

It is important for a physician treating a child to know if the child has a legal father and whether the father has full parental rights. The rights of a legal father (not a merely biologic father) start at the child's birth and are coextensive with the mother's rights. This means that from the birth of the child on, a father and a mother have the same rights to determine the medical care their child will receive, where the child will live, and all the other decisions that parents normally make for their children. If the mother and father do not agree, it is the business of the family courts to decide who will care for the child.


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