There’s an essay on the NYT website today that raises some interesting questions, though I think the picture it paints is incomplete. It’s an excellent and provocative title: Is Forced Fatherhood Fair? I guess the idea is that Father’s Day is a good time to think about this. And perhaps that is true.
To begin with you have to understand what Laurie Shrage (the author) means by forced fatherhood. She’s concerned about instances where “dad’s role was not freely assumed, but legally mandated.” I think what’s she’s principally worried about are cases where a man and a woman who are not married to each other engage in intercourse and an unplanned pregnancy results. At that point, the decision about whether to proceed with the pregnancy or not is not the man’s. If the woman does not wish to have an abortion but instead wants to give birth, she can choose that route. And if she then wants to raise the child as a legal parent, then she can do that, too. In many cases, the man will be the legal father of the child and have obligations and responsibilities as well as rights thrust upon him. He is, in Shrage’s terminology, a forced father.
Shrage finds the idea of forced fatherhood problematic for a number of reasons that are explored in her essay. A couple of things strike me particularly.
The legal basis for forced fatherhood is the genetic linkage between man and child. Thus Shrage’s concern leads her in the direction I’d choose to go myself–genetic linkage shouldn’t make the man a legal parent. It’s also quite clearly the opposite direction from those who support DNA-based legal parenthood would go. In that context, what is striking to me is that her arguments aren’t the ones I have made here and I’m not sure I particularly agree with them. I suppose all this shows is there are many ways to skin cats or more than one road to Rome or something like that. Still, I think it’s a good thing to consider her arguments.
Shrage seems to be motivated in large part by questions of whether men are being treated fairly here. After all, look at the description above–the critical decision-making power (to have a child or not) is vested in the woman alone. This is true, of course, once there is a pregnancy. It’s not at all true if you expand the frame of reference to include the time before the pregnancy. This is not a concern with men being forced to engage in sex in order to impregnate women. (I have never seen statistics on this, but I have to assume this is rather an infrequent occurrence.) These are instances where men elect to engage in sex and pregnancy follows as a consequence of that choice.
Shrage suggests that we should view the rules that establish men as forced fathers as akin to efforts to control women’s sexuality.
Do our policies now aim to punish and shame men for their sexual promiscuity?
Many of my male students (in Miami where I teach), who come from low-income immigrant communities, believe that our punitive paternity policies are aimed at controlling their sexual behavior.
But I wonder if this is really a fair description. Couldn’t I say instead that these are rules that ought to make men take contraception seriously? That if only women bear the risk of conception (because the man can walk away), that will create its own problems?
There’s much else to think about here, but I want to jump to one last point. Though I am inclined to disagree with the fairness rationale, I’m not unsympathetic to at least part of the conclusion reached here. I do think forcing unwilling men to be fathers will typically create less than ideal situations for children. Indeed, this is a big part of the reason why I think legal fatherhood ought not to be based simply on genetics. Let the child have a chance to find a man who will embrace the role of parent willingly.
But, as you may recall, I am willing to consider splitting the financial obligation of child support from the role of legal parent. Thus, I would force child support upon men even if I didn’t force fatherhood upon them. (I know this is controversial and we’ve talked about it some. It’s just here as a reminder.) To my mind, child support and legal fatherhood need not be an indivisible pair.
And one last note: Shrage is really only focused on one set of circumstances and, as regular readers know, there are many. So for example, we’ve had long discussions here recently about cases where the unmarried woman places the child for adoption. That’s all well and good if the man is in the “forced father” category, but what about cases where the man wants to be a father? This, too, can be understood as a dynamic where the critical questions are about who has power.