Laurie Shrage’s recent opinion-piece in the New York Times Is Forced Fatherhood Fair? caused a lot of uproar this week. Reporting on suggestions from Jane Murphy (“legal scholar”) and Elizabeth Brake (“political philosopher”), Shrage’s piece argues that forcing biological fathers to assume financial responsibility for their off-spring is ‘unfair,’ and that men should be allowed to have sex without the burden of consequence.
Before we can fairly start to consider the concept of ‘forced fatherhood fairness,’ we must first examine and critically engage with Shrage’s claims to evaluate its plausible logic and viable ‘fairness’ (something Shrage won’t mind, given her background in philosophy):
“The political philosopher Elizabeth Brake has argued that our policies should give men who accidentally impregnate a woman more options, and that feminists should oppose policies that make fatherhood compulsory.”
What makes fatherhood compulsory is not any law or legislation but fatherhood itself. Once fatherhood happens, its viability as non-compulsory is void. Extent of participation remains negotiable.
Also, it’s important to consider when Shrage is defining ‘fatherhood’ as beginning. If the claim is that fatherhood begins after a child is born, then so does motherhood or any parenthood – and that type of thinking suggests that a gestating entity is not a child, and therefore abortion is not murder, or any other pro-life claim.
“… the asymmetrical options that men and women now have when dealing with an unplanned pregnancy set up power imbalances in their sexual relationships that my male students find hugely unfair to them.”
This is a poorly disguised complaint regarding a woman’s control over her own body and the concept of accepting the culpability of one’s actions by accepting responsibility for one’s actions and the duties attendant to certain types of social interaction. Yes, it is true that some men wish to have the child that a woman wishes to abort. Since, however, a pregnancy is dependent upon the body of the gestating woman, there is no fair legislation that could insist a woman carry an unwanted child to term. Such legislation would undoubtedly endanger the well-being of women (such as the recent case in Ireland) and the children they carry by opening up the possibility of women forced into pregnancy through rape, incest, and other abuses of power, or even despite the dangers a pregnancy inflicts – sometimes life-threatening – upon a female body. Any such agreement for a woman to essentially ‘surrogate’ an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy would have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis between the biological parents, as it already is today.
A woman’s body and her right to choice must remain her own; otherwise what results is a type of slavery. Being told what you may or may not do with your own body, excluding limitations preventing infringing on the rights or autonomy of others, is a form of slavery. But accepting responsibility for your actions, even for unintended consequences, is part of adulthood. And that responsibility isn’t possible without universal access to birth control.
Further, perhaps it’s time we echo some gender-rhetoric and bias at men. Perhaps men should be encouraged to take responsibility for their (sexual) actions. No, not perhaps: definitely. If, as is often the argument of pro-lifers, women are encouraged to wait until marriage before having sex because of the possibility of pregnancy, then so should men. The burden of responsibility should not rest upon a single gender. Shrage seems to believe that men should be allowed to have sex without consequence or responsibility in addition to the freedom from slut-shaming men already enjoy, simply because men cannot become pregnant. Since universal access to birth control, abortion and other reproductive health services does not exist, what Shrage deems ‘hugely unfair’ to men is actually enormously, prejudicially and injuriously unfair to women everywhere.
“Coercing legal paternity in such cases leads to painful “disestablishment” battles that are unlikely to be in the best interest of the child or promote stable family relationships…we need to protect children and stabilize family relationships, as Murphy suggests, by broadening our definition of “father” to include men who willingly perform fatherlike [sic] roles in a child’s life”
Absolutely. It would be great if there was a way for couples – of any gender identity or sexual orientation – to file a ‘paternity (or maternity, depending) intent’ toward children in agreement with (and with permission from) the custodial biological parent (or the custodial non-biological parent in the case of adoption and sometimes surrogacy). It would be like non-religious marriage without necessitating a ceremony or license, and would lessen exclusion otherwise faced by same-sex couples and any other supposed-‘unconventional’ parental relationships. After all, it is logical that, just as a woman retains the right to choice over her own body, other genders should retain choice over parental status.
“Rather than punish men (or women) for their apparent reproductive irresponsibility by coercing legal paternity (or maternity), the government has other options, such as mandatory sex education, family planning counseling, or community service.”
These only matter before pregnancy occurs. They are not viable options once pregnancy occurs.
Also: yes, there is an apparent reproductive irresponsibility detected in men who whine about having to be responsible for their off-spring, intentional or otherwise, and men who think they can have sex free of potential consequence.
“Coerced paternity in such cases—where there has been little informed consent at the moment of assigning legal paternity—is typically costly to enforce and does not protect children or preserve family stability.”
Informed consent regarding possible pregnancy is actually occurring at the moment that consent for sexual intercourse is occurring, because the consenting parties are aware that pregnancy might be a result, however unintended or unwanted. HOWEVER, consent regarding possible pregnancy is not given or possible, ever, by any person forced into non-consensual sexualized violence, such as rape, sexual assault or incest. Also, a man who ‘abandons’ a woman and child is not going to have a “stable family relationship” with them, so ‘upsetting him’ by taking him to court for child support is not disturbing any family bonds. Abusive men without paternity orders can also return to harass mothers and children, and child support laws are meant to gain financial assistance, not ‘policed security of person’.
“In places where women and girls have access to affordable and safe contraception and abortion services, and where there are programs to assist mothers in distress find foster or adoptive parents, voluntary motherhood is basically a reality.”
What defines ‘affordability’ for the impoverished, marginalized and disenfranchised? (Free, and accessible, which many contraceptives, abortion and adoptive services are not.) Many programs responding to the gestating impoverished do not extend the same compassion and autonomy to their clients as they do to the wealthy when it comes to finding foster or adoptive parents. Voluntary motherhood is the realm of persons who decide to purposefully conceive, personally or through surrogates. Mothers who choose to continue with an unplanned or even unwanted pregnancy are not ‘voluntary mothers,’ they are involuntary mothers making a subsequent choice. Any unplanned pregnancy is involuntary for all biological contributors in the sense that it was unplanned, and therefore not voluntary.
“Do men now have less reproductive autonomy than women?”
Now, we can consider the idea of men/fathers legally abjuring all financial and parental responsibility:
“…if women’s partial responsibility for pregnancy does not obligate them to support a fetus, then men’s partial responsibility for pregnancy does not obligate them to support a resulting child” (Brake, 2005, as cited by Shrage)
Partially true. The logical tenets behind the partial veracity or viability of this idea are a bit lengthy to go into, but suffice to say that ‘men’s partial responsibility for pregnancy’ can fairly warrant a limited-term compulsory contribution equivalent to the limited-term of gestation-through-breast-feeding (up until age two). The amount of active parenting a biological father must supply is up to him, as it is with any biological mother. But the physical burden of gestation rests solely on the gestating parent. The physical burdens attendant to gestation can be extended to include the period of breast-feeding (or its equivalent for parents who cannot breast-feed), during which the intimate bonds between parent and child (the ‘mothering’ role that is no longer limited to mothers) is of tantamount importance to the healthy development post-natal brain growth, attachment, sense of security, and physical immunities. This period of time is understood to be from birth to roughly age two, as people who study early childhood development have long known.
Perhaps intent could count in court for fathers who did not intend a pregnancy and do not want to support a child, necessitating financial support-based care of the mother and child during gestation and the first (approximately) two years of life (the period of time the two are most vulnerable and in need, and during which breast-feeding is ideal). But the idea that only a pregnancy’s costs ought to be covered by a biological father who didn’t intend to be a father neglects that what’s being created is more than ‘a pregnancy,’ it’s a person who needs support as it grows into adulthood.
In this scenario, ff we wanted to be completely fair to young children, we’d extend the period of financial obligation up until the age they enter full-time school, approximately age 5 or 6. Parents of children who enter full-time schooling have reduced expenses in terms of child-care services, and can go to jobs without the emotional burden of worrying about who is raising their children while they are absent to produce an income. Of course, custodial parents who are comfortable with placing pre-school aged children in childcare programs, and who can afford such programs, could extend a lessened financial obligation to the absent-except-for-financial-contribution parents if they chose to.
Sure, plausibly, if during a pregnancy the biological father wants to give up all rights and obligations, and never claim them ever again, that’s an idea that might be worth pondering. The male metaphorical-abortion. And if we wanted a clause to allow for a biological-parent who walked away from a child to return and contribute, financially and emotionally, that seems reasonable as well – after all, estranged parents sometimes do return in regret and make fantastic parents despite their earlier abjuration. However, once a parent, biological or otherwise, assumes the role of parent, there is no immediately obvious reason to allow abjuration without continued financial obligation (excluding abusive or dangerously-criminal individuals).
Trying to implement laws that say a man has no responsibility for unplanned or unwanted pregnancies just hurtles us backwards in time toward when women had to assume all responsibility for unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, in wedlock or outside of it, forced through non-consensual sexualized violence like rape or incest, or accidentally contracted during consensual trysts.
From a social justice perspective, claiming that ‘forced fatherhood’ is a disservice to men is no different from how the ‘forced and/or unsupported motherhood’ was and is a disservice to women.
In a recent interview, Laurie Shrage suggested that the financial and parental obligations of unplanned pregnancies should fall to societies rather than the men who don’t want the children they’ve fathered.
What do you think?