While Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, the state approved a law forcing single mothers seeking to give their children up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper in an attempt to contact the children’s fathers — even if the mothers were rape victims or minors.
The measure, passed in 2001 and soon nicknamed the “Scarlet Letter” law, wasn’t actually signed by Bush — though he chose not to veto it, either — and was repealed in 2003 after courts found it to be unconstitutional. But the bizarre and anachronistic policy, flagged by the Huffington Post’s Laura Bassett Tuesday in a review of Bush’s past rhetoric and policies toward single mothers, could be a problem for the presidential hopeful who once bemoaned that the GOP is viewed as an “anti-woman” party.
When Florida legislators crafted this provision, their goal was to ensure that a biological father would be informed before a single mother gave his child up for adoption. They inserted it into a massive overhaul of Florida adoption law after some well-publicized cases in which children of single mothers were given up for adoption without the knowledge of their biological fathers, leading to years long court battles and uncertainty for the children involved.
But the approach the legislators chose for addressing this problem — requiring women to list every sexual encounter that could have produced their child in newspaper ads, so as to track down biological fathers in advance of the child being given up for adoption — was a disgraceful and humiliating violation of privacy. Here’s how the New York Times described it in 2003:
The Scarlet Letter law required women to run advertisements disclosing their names, ages, height, hair and eye color, race and weight as well as the child’s name and birthplace and a description of the possible father.
It also required the women to provide details of the dates and places of sexual encounters that might have produced the child. Women were required to run the advertisements once a week for a month in the community where the child may have been conceived.
The adoption law passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities, and its major champion was a Democrat, state Sen. Walter “Skip” Campbell. But there’s some question about whether many legislators were even aware the Scarlet Letter provision existed.”I have to admit I’m horrified that I voted for this,” Democratic state Rep. Lois Frankel told the Gainesville Sun a year later.
Also, at the time, legislators were saying they’d soon pass another bill creating a confidential registry through which potential birth fathers could claim paternity, as exists in other states. Governor Bush was considering vetoing the adoption overhaul, but decided to let it become law after being assured that this “fix” would pass.
But the legislature failed to pass the fix, and the Scarlet Letter requirement kicked in in October 2001. It soon became the focus of a nationwide controversy. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in 2002:
Do you want to know about the sex life of Sandra, a 33-year-old brunette in Tampa? Just read the Florida newspapers. Sandra is being forced by Florida state law to buy advertisements that give her full name (which I’m not repeating) and physical description: 5 feet 2 inches, 142 pounds, brown eyes. Then, as the law requires, she has to list and describe the five men she had sex with late last summer: Bill, Tommy, Allen, Eric and Joshua.
Several women soon filed lawsuits. “Would you want your deepest, darkest secret to be published for all to read? It has a tremendous chilling effect on women having their child placed for adoption,” an attorney for the plaintiffs told the Associated Press in 2002.One judge quickly ruled that the provision violated the privacy of rape victims. And an appellate court eventually declared that it violated the rights of every woman involved.
Finally, in May 2003, two years after the law was passed, Bush and the chagrined legislature repealed the controversial provision, replacing it with the confidential registry. ”Only a male-dominated legislature could possibly pass a law that facilitates adoptions by requiring public humiliation of women,” Florida American Civil Liberties Union executive director Howard Simon said at the time.