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Feminspire | April 24, 2014

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Do ‘Forced Fathers’ Get the Short End of the Pregnancy Stick? … No.

Do ‘Forced Fathers’ Get the Short End of the Pregnancy Stick? … No.

| On 14, Jun 2013

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?

Written by Sherrie Silman
Check out her blog, Solace Sylum, or follow her on Twitter!

  • John

    There is an argument to be made that when abortion is available, it is unfair for men not to abort as women are able to abort. But I think that article is just one more example of people being unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions. A man should not be able to forfeit his responsibility as a parent, just as I feel women should not be able to forfeit responsibility through abortion. Abortion seems acceptable because it is her body and child, but the idea of a man abandoning responsibility is abhorred. That’s a double-standard that is not fair. I think women and men both should assume responsibility for their children by either keeping their children or giving them up for adoption.

  • Rob Bobberstein

    The article loses sight of the issue very quickly.

    The bottom line is still this: there are many more instances where a male can be forced into fatherhood than the converse. Even if the woman only has access to the pill, she immediately has more options as well as options that are less expensive and have a lower failure rate than just condoms alone.

    The notion that both parties are equally responsible for the uncertainty of unwanted pregnancy is laughable when females have many more options for dealing with the risk across the board then males do. The only mitigating factor I see in this is the affliction of pregnancy itself, which only females can incur. Unless pregnancy is a literal nine month hell on earth, I fail to see how this is worse than eighteen years of financial servitude to a child that one did not desire. Perhaps requiring the male to pay for the abortion in the case of paternal surrender if she chooses to have one would be adequate.

  • Mariah Huehner

    I’m actually in favor of not forcing fatherhood on those who truly did not want it to begin with, but there’s a lot that can come into play in this scenario that makes that in no way easily identified or defined, while also being in a society that doesn’t have the kind of support system for single mothers it would need to make this viable yet.

    1. Some men convince women not to terminate pregnancies for any number of reasons, but then once the child is born, avoid or flee responsibility. Anyone can claim they “never” wanted a child to begin with.

    2. How do we prove the “never wanted children” scenario? What steps can be taken before a child is born to insure that only those who want and are willing to support that child are involved? And how to do we get mothers the support they need so it doesn’t mcatter if the father is involved or not? And would that lead to more “men/fathers are being marginalized” hang wringing?

    3. I find the “put it up for adoption” scenario everyone loves to leap to for unplanned pregnancies, like that’s easy or consequence free, to be absurd. The us at least has an overburdened and extremely problematic adoption system. It’s not the “easy” solution some people seem to think it is. And I fail to see how trying to shame single mothers into giving up their children fosters a fair or beneficial system for anyone.

    4. To the commenters below- Biologically, women carry a pregnancy. It resides in their bodies. So no, it’s not unfair that only women have a say in whether its carried to term or not. As the article states, giving anyone outside of the woman’s body control over that is unethical and immoral. And you can’t have “equal” say or it’s a stalemate. The only way it can be done legally is having it be the woman’s choice, full stop. When men can carry pregnancies, then it can be “equal”. Pregnancy is also a huge risk for women, it can kill them. So yes, that IS potentially 9 months of hell. Especially if it’s unwanted. Would any man want to have to carry around a parasite for 9 months they didn’t want that drains their energy, physically limits them, and can cause any nmber of long term health problems/death because someone else decided they had to? I seriously don’t think so.

    • Stacy Westmoreland

      I think that a good way to get around some of these issues would be for the courts to have a “legal abortion” process that a man could go through. It must be started before the baby is viable. I think that would weed out the people claiming the never wanted it in the first place…

      I also think maybe I’m writing my opinions wrong or something. I feel that in no way should a man get to force a woman into keeping/getting rid of the child. He should just be able to have the same option of walking away. I am just trying to show that the man is not always the bad guy.

      • Mariah Huehner

        Sorry, my comment was addressing the ones that ended up above

        To address yours: I
        personally do think there should be options, but the “before a fetus is
        viable” thing is problematic as things currently stand. In the u.s. a lot of states already have very restrictive wait periods and limits on when an abortion can take place. Our legal system is already slow, I’m not sure adding additional complications would make it any easier for women to have access to safe abortion in the narrow time frames they’re allotted. In fact, it definitely wouldn’t. This is the problem, “choice” doesn’t exist in a perfect system right now, so a lot of what you are discussing can only happen in a utopia where everyone has the same access to care, no financial concerns, and gender equality.
        In reality we put the onus of child rearing on women, offer little to no
        support to single mothers, and in general have made father’s very ancillary in the support of children. We also don’t
        require men to take much responsibility for the possible consequences of sex, so financial support for a child conceived with or without intent is actually more “fair” than not. Especially for said child. At least until we have a system where women aren’t penalized for having children without a partner.

        • Stacy Westmoreland

          I’m not saying that a man would have to sign off on a woman getting an abortion. And the viability statement was meant as more of a snark to a lot of states’ current state of affairs on abortion. I think that I AM slightly biased on this subject, having a couple of guy friends that were put into rather horrible positions by the women carrying their child, with the women using their child as a weapon to emotional hurt the fathers, which emotionally hurt the children in the process. What I was suggesting with legal proceedings would have saved a lot of heart ache on the father’s and child’s behalf. I know that situations like that are the minority and that this would, indeed, create loopholes for the average joe-douche to get out of responsibilities, but I think something needs to be in place for men that are in abusive situations. And, yes, they do exist.

  • Stacy Westmoreland

    As a woman, this issue is one that I have been deeply involved in. I think the man should be able to “abort” having a child and be supported doing so just as a woman can. If a man really wants to have a child and his partner does not, the woman (understandably) gets the last say in the matter. If she chooses to abort, the man does not get to become a father, no matter how emotionally attached he became to the idea of having the child. The woman is hailed as standing up for her rights ad empowering women. Yet, a woman that really wants to have a child can opt to keep that child and suddenly the male gets saddled with 18 years of child support payments and the emotional hurt and discord that comes from such a case. He is labeled as a dead beat, an irresponsible jerk, because he was forced to become a father before he was ready with a woman he didn’t want to have children with (women use these as an excuse to abort the child, why can’t a man do the same?). Equal rights mean just that. It doesn’t mean women suddenly get superiority, it means equal.

    • asdhdfhghjsdfd

      A woman isn’t ‘superior’ just because she chooses to abort a child out of her own body that the other person wants.

      You can’t force a woman to be pregnant, to carry and give birth to a child and go through all that that entails, just because the man will feel upset if it gets aborted. He needs to grow up and deal with it.

      • Stacy Westmoreland

        You are completely missing the point. Just as you can’t force a woman to carry a baby to term, you shouldn’t be able to force a man to be a father. If he thinks that an abortion would be good idea because they aren’t in a relationship/haven’t been in one for long, he thinks they are too young to properly raise a child, or doesn’t want to raise a child with the woman that got pregnant he should be able to legally abort. If a man can’t force a woman to be a mother, a woman shouldn’t be able to force a man into being a father. EQUAL rights.

        This isn’t about abortion being legal or illegal, but about men getting the same options in starting a family as women. If a woman decides to have the kid after the man tries to change her mind, after he gives all of his valid reasons as to why it would be better to wait, and she takes it upon herself to have the baby anyway, why would she get mad if the man walks away… shouldn’t she just grow up and deal with it?

        • Mariah Huehner

          Oof, your first paragraph is really problematic. No, we absolutely cannot give men equal say over pregnancies going to term or not because they exist in another person’s body. Thats the biological reality. If it seems unfair, take it up with nature. If we can ever have shared pregnancy, or men can carry pregnancies, or we just make babies in vats, then we can discuss equal say. Otherwise, no. Because think about it, how would that work. If both parties have equal say, which they must, then all you would have is a legal stalemate. Or you’re suggesting that men prove women should have abortions and then be forced to have them and man, the ethical and legal pitfalls there are huge.

          It’s just a physical reality that those with a uterus carry a pregnancy and get final say. That’s the only ethical standpoint. Now, should there be steps a dude can take to abdicate fatherhood when he doesn’t want to be involved, yeah. But that is very, very, very different than giving men the right to force women to abort or carry to term. That is a big no.

          • Stacy Westmoreland

            Nah, I’m not trying to say a man should be able to force a woman into having or not having a child. By using the term “legal abortion” I was trying to infer a legal contract written up by a legal representative that indicates a biological fathers wish to “legally abort” (or to not have any ties to unwanted offspring). I am fully aware and supportive of a woman’s right to carry or terminate her own pregnancy. But as a woman can terminate a pregnancy and deny fatherhood to a man, a man should be able to walk away from a child he does not want. But only before the child is born. As a woman can only get an abortion before the child is born. And it should be filed in a court system so a man can not change his mind after the child is born to try and avoid child support.

            If a woman doesn’t want to become a mom, she can just terminate the pregnancy. But if a man doesn’t want to be a father, he has no choice in the matter. He should not be able to force abortion. He should be able to “legally abort”. If you look at my above statement with a different idea as to what I meant about legal abortion, you will see that it will change the entire context of the paragraph.

            Once again, if a man doesn’t want to be the father of a child, he should have the option of filing some sort of binding, legal document (before the child is born) stating that he cuts all legal ties with this child. If a man changes his mind and wants to leave AFTER the child is born should have to pay child support. That’s what I meant about not forcing someone (man or woman) to become a parent. I swear I am not for forcing anyone to do anything.

          • Chris

            This is absolutely spot on. Well done Stacy. I think this is the way forward, and not the opposite, as the article suggests.

  • Vivid Sammy

    What a lot of people seem to forget is that abortion is not an easy choice. It can be emotionally extremely exhausting. Not only because hormones will put a lot of motherly love in your body, you family and friends opinions can be completely devastating. It’s still difficult to opt for abortion in a state where it is allowed. Its NEVER an easy choice and it’s the woman who will suffer no matter what her choice will be. Maybe the day abortion is completely accepted people can talk about TRUE choice. Until then, man should take responsibility for their children born.

  • Gracie

    This article really struck a chord with me because when I accidentally got pregnant, a large reason that I decided not to keep it was because I knew my partner did not to be a father.

    Knowing this I knew that I would be a single mother and that, as such, I would struggle financially to raise a child because I didn’t feel it wouldn’t be fair to force fatherhood onto someone against their will and then make them pay for it too.

    I think ideally there needs to be a male version of the pill that men can take a third option for when the condom breaks and your birth control’s playing up because your on antibiotics.
    This would not only level the playing field, it would act as an impetus for men to think about their responsibility to avoid pregnancy as well.

  • Ali

    Men have been telling women for ages that they need to take responsibility for their actions if their actions result in a pregnancy. The same should be true of men. If you choose to be sexually active, you should acknowledge that sexual activity can get women pregnant. If you get a woman pregnant by choosing to have sex with her, the two of you are BOTH responsible. You may say that she has the choice of getting an abortion, so why should you be responsible when she has chosen to continue? The answer is that you knew the risks when you had sex in the first place. You knew that you might get her pregnant, and that if she got pregnant there was a possibility she would choose to have your child. You should contribute. It’s not like anyone tricked you. In the meantime, try to avoid that situation by using birth control and being responsible.