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The price of fatherhood

There isn't a test to become a parent, but a Wisconsin court thinks there should be an economic prerequisite. That's the precedent the state's Supreme Court set this month when it upheld a 1999 ruling that told a deadbeat dad of nine to have no more children while on probation unless he proves he can support them. If he violates the ruling as it now stands, he faces eight years in prison.

As the bench noted, David Oakley hasn't paid a dime of the $25,000 he owes for his brood of nine. But for a court to order that he have no more children until he is financially able to do so violates Oakley's civil rights. Having children isn't a privilege for adults _ it is a fundamental human liberty.

The three female justices, showing a little common sense, all dissented. It was the four men on the bench who made the outrageous ruling, stating that it takes a certain financial ability to have a child. The majority opinion stresses Oakley's obvious irresponsibility. But the dissenting opinion zeroed in on the ruling's most obvious point _ that Oakley must pay to have a child.

Now, no one should feel sorry for Oakley. The public's aggravation with fathers who leave their children behind makes it easy to agree with the court's decision. But it's a more complicated matter than just a punishment for one person. If we imprison a man for fathering a child, why not imprison an impoverished woman for having a child? Or worse _ what if courts ordered sterilization for those who couldn't afford the children they already had? Some court decisions have already come perilously close to that.

Justice Jon Wilcox, writing for the majority, said parents who fail to ante up their child support deprive children of nearly $11-billion annually. The state did the right thing by demanding that Oakley attempt to support his kids, and he defied the state by not signing over a cent. That irresponsibility should be punished. But society has better ways of collecting such debts than resorting to, in the dissenting opinion's words, a "compulsory, state-sponsored, court-enforced financial test for future parenthood."

Oakley probably isn't fit to have any more kids. But that doesn't mean a court has the right to tell him not to.