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A veteran Illinois legislator once told me that one of the main things he'd learned is how regularly laws have unintended consequences.

This guy was pretty typical for a member of the state General Assembly — which isn't exactly a compliment — and his observation wasn't much more than a riff on an age-old maxim.

But I think his words stuck with me because of how true they ring when government gets involved in human relationships — true and, when those relationships create children, somewhat beside the point.

On Monday, the Madison advocacy group ABC for Health released a report urging the state to stop asking unmarried, expectant mothers in need of Medicaid to identify the fathers of their children so the state can make them help pay for prenatal and birth-related care.

If they don't name names, the women risk losing coverage. The unintended consequence of the state's policy is that this isn't always enough to outweigh the fear some mothers have that their mates will react angrily once they find out the state is on their tails.

Many pregnant women also forgo applying for Medicaid, according to ABC's executive director Bobby Peterson, because they don't realize that the state allows them to continue receiving Medicaid during pregnancy and until 60 days after the child is born even if they don't name the fathers.

The upshot is that a lot of infants go without proper pre- and post-natal care.

Social workers and clients are telling his group that "this was a real problem for them," he said.

Of course, there could be some fairly problematic unintended consequences from not recouping birth costs — among them a greater-than-expected burden on Medicaid and the associated cost to taxpayers, and the possibility of less money for people who truly need it.

It also seems wrong for the state to summarily let dads shirk their responsibilities.

I'm less concerned about taxpayers or expectant fathers shirking their responsibilities, though.

And my sympathy isn't endless for the woman who gets impregnated by a man who can't be relied on to help support his kid but can be relied on to react violently if she allows the state to make him support his kid.

But let's face it: Any child conceived in such circumstances is going to need all the help he or she can get, and that should be the defining priority for government when it's not a priority for parents.

Wisconsin is one of just nine states that collect birth costs from fathers, according to the ABC report. To stop, Wisconsin legislators would have to change state law, according to the Department of Children and Families.

I understand that it's galling for many taxpayers to bear the costs of other people's irresponsible behavior. Even more galling to know the fathers in irresponsible pregnancies are getting off scot-free.

But that's not the kids' fault.

With the proper care, they won't grow into the kinds of people who need government to parent their children.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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