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PATERNITY IS AT THE HEART OF THE MATTER

There are taxicabs roaming the streets of New York City these days bearing a question: "Who's the Father?"

These are not mobile gossip-mongers. These are ads that promise anyone within reading distance an answer. Just call "1-800-DNA-TYPE."

This is the way it works: A cotton swab in the mouth of man and child, a genetic test, and the matter of paternity is finally put to rest -- yes or no.

I don't know if Bill Cosby passed such a cab as he headed to the Manhattan courtroom where a woman who desperately claims to be his daughter was on trial. And maybe it doesn't matter.

After all, the judge in this case has ruled that paternity is not an issue. She has repeatedly said that the trial has nothing to do with genes and everything to do with extortion.

The question before the court is whether Autumn Jackson and her accomplices demanded $40 million or else. Or else she would sell a story to the tabloids and publish the press release that said, "My deadbeat billionaire dad has thrown me away."

The law parses out human emotions and experiences this way. Extortion over here, paternity over there.

But in the real world, paternity is an issue. Paternity is at the heart of this unhappy, unseemly story.

Paternity is, after all, the difference between Autumn Jackson and Autumn Cosby. It's the difference between a woman who is money-grubbing and a woman who is also father-hungry.

Paternity is the difference between a withholding Bill Cosby who told Autumn, "I am not your father," and a generous Bill Cosby who added, "I will be for you a father figure."

This 22-year-old came into public view with the worst, most callous sense of timing. Americans who regarded Ennis Cosby's father as our father figure barely had time to absorb his loss. We were still shuddering with the recognition that any parent is only a flat tire and a murderous highwayman away from mourning.

What could we think of a self-described daughter so obsessed that she didn't have the decency to pause in pursuit of this man and his millions? In the hours after Ennis' death, we now know, all this "sister" could think was that "Nobody notified me. I had to find out about it on the news."

No DNA test could explain such narcissism. But surely paternity makes a difference, however small, between the calculations of a coldblooded extortionist and the wanton, willful cry of a wounded child, excluded again.

To read "Fatherhood" after Ennis Cosby's death is to ache at the easy humor of a parent whose child is wonderfully, infuriatingly alive. It is the book of a family man. One night in a Las Vegas hotel room with Autumn's mother doesn't change that.

But it is also to see and feel the difference between mere paternity and full fatherhood. For Cosby, as for most men, fatherhood is connected to continuity and commitment, to being there. When Autumn's lawyer asked him if he meant what he wrote, that a father could not be "part time," a somber comedian answered, "Yes." Yet surely he was also honest when he said, "I am not your father." Not in his own terms.

What must it have felt like for Autumn to have her nose pressed against that window? Against that television screen? Father hunger runs deep in this country. What fatherless child wouldn't have wanted to call Bill Cosby "dad"?

Both Bill and Autumn had reasons to avoid knowing the genetic facts. Her fear of shattering her fantasy. His fear of disrupting his family as well as his reputation.

In the wake of Ennis' death, these old worries must seem puny indeed. There is mercy in any numbness that helps this good man through the trial of a maybe-daughter before he must go through the trial of his beloved son's murderer.

But in the dedication to his book Cosby reminded men who become fathers, "With fulfillment comes responsibility." Sometimes responsibility comes on its own.

The court cannot demand an answer to the taxicab question: "Who's the Father?" Genes are not on trial.

But the real case of this woman in search of a father and this father mourning for his son will never finally close until the mystery of their DNA is put to rest.

1-800-DNA-TYPE. The simple human truth is that paternity matters.

The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.

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