My goodness, this "choice for men" debate just doesn’t end, does it?
Avedon Carol writes:
Women should certainly have a unilateral right to decide whether to carry to term, but I can see no good argument for also allowing us the unilateral right to impose a decision made solely by the woman on a man who, at that point, becomes an innocent bystander. You can’t claim that his responsibility for having sex is any greater than hers unless it’s either rape or you really think women are too stupid to live (and never initiate sex). They both did it, and if you argue that the resulting pregnancy is his responsibility for the next 18 years just because he happened to have sex with her, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to explain why she didn’t take on the same responsibility when she chose to engage in the same sex act.
Avedon is one of my favorite bloggers, but she’s mistaken about this.
Avedon claims that after sex a man "becomes an innocent bystander," and therefore he has no responsibility for what happens. This is "hot potato" morality; instead of splitting responsibility between all decision-makers, the last person to make a decision gets 100% of the responsibility.
To see why hot potato morality doesn’t work, consider the meat industry. Bob’s meat plant sells Jane’s meat shop unsafe meat – even though Bob knows it’s unsafe. Jane’s meat shop then sells the meat, even though Jane also knows it’s unsafe. Then, several consumers eat the meat and go blind. According to Avedon’s hot potato morality, only Jane is responsible for that outcome, and those blinded folks may sue Jane but not Bob. After all, the decision to sell the meat to consumers was "made solely by Jane"; once the meat had passed out of Bob’s hands, Bob "becomes an innocent bystander."
But that’s ridiculous – Bob made a choice, why shouldn’t he have any responsibility for it? Both Bob and Jane are legally and morally responsible for the choices they knowingly made; that Jane’s decision came later doesn’t let Bob off the hook. We don’t ask "did Bob choose first or second," because that’s not relevant. Instead, we as "did Bob make a choice? Should he have known the possible consequences of his choice?" If the answer to both those questions is "yes," then Bob shares responsibility for what happens.
Furthermore, hot potato morality creates what economists call a "moral hazard," which means that when people aren’t held responsible for the risks they take, they’ll take dangerous risks. Hot potato morality encourages Bob to sell tainted meat, because Bob would know that he can’t be held responsible for the consequences.
So what happens if Bob and Jane are lovers? Similar logic applies. Although Jane makes her final decision later than Bob does, both of them freely choose. The only difference is that the final choice comes later for women than for men. I admit that’s not absolutely fair, but as Avedon herself wrote, "Yes. So? Look, that’s just a fact of biology." The bottom line is that as long as Bob wasn’t raped – as long as he freely chose to risk becoming a father – then Bob bears some of the responsibility for his child.
Furthermore, Avedon’s proposal creates a "moral hazard" for fathers. Since men won’t be held responsible for their choices, men will have less motive to reduce the risk of pregnancy. The result would be increased single motherhood, increased poverty, and increased social problems. This isn’t speculation on my part – statistically, states with weaker child support laws have higher rates of single motherhood. If mandatory child support were eliminated, as Avedon suggests, then presumably the increase in single motherhood would be even larger.
Finally, any discussion of what’s fair has to consider all parties – not just the father. I agree, it’s unfair that Bob can be forced to pay child support for a child he didn’t want (it almost happened to me once, and I still get chills thinking about it). But it’s also unfair to Jane that, even with child support payments, she’s probably paying most of the cost of child-rearing – and definitely doing all the work. And finally, it’s unfair for the child that she or he doesn’t have two loving, voluntary parents.
Well, life is unfair. Deal with it. But Avedon’s solution doesn’t relieve unfairness, it just transfers it. Rather than all three parties sharing the burden equally, the father is relieved of all unfairness while the child’s and mother’s burdens are increased. How is that fair?
Update: After I wrote and posted the above, I come across Ginger Stampley’s blog, where she says pretty much the same thing, but she says it better. Here’s a sample:
Once the woman has declined to exercise her right to terminate a pregnancy–and the fact that it terminates parental responsibility in the future is a byproduct of that right–the question stops being about the rights of the parents, and becomes about their responsibilities, and the rights of the child they’re (both) bringing into the world. The child’s rights include the right to care from both its parents, male and female. [...]
I’ve heard a number of friends complain bitterly about women who got pregnant and forced the man involved to support the kid, normally complete with tales of how the mother is terrible to the kid and how the father is the only one who really loves the kid. I have yet to figure out how the life of the kids in question would be better if the men who love them had been legally permitted to ditch them because their mothers were lousy human beings.
Further update: Avedon replied to Ginger, but seems to be missing the point. According to Avedon, “If responsibility doesn’t include taking the father’s willingness to parent into account, it’s a meaningless concept.”
Avedon has a really unique idea of what “responsibility” means. If I drove my car over my neighbor’s mailbox, my “willingness” to perform repairs doesn’t change the fact that I’m responsible for the damage. If I break a contract with Al, Al’s ability to sue me for damages isn’t dependant on how “willing” I am to pay those damages.
It comes down to two simple questions: did I freely make my choice, and should I have been aware of the possible consequences of that choice? That – not how willing I am to pry open my wallet – is what determines responsibility.
A child neither has nor needs the “right” to a father who has no desire to be part of that child’s life, who may be seething with so much resentment (even hatred) of the mother that their every encounter is poisonous, and who may project that resentment onto the child and even demonstrate it in very visible and very hurtful ways.
If the father doesn’t want to have contact with the kid, no one should (or can) force him to; but he should still be required to pay child support, because the consequences of poverty for children are at least as bad as everything Avedon just described. (And if he does want to see and love the child, then so much the better for everyone!)
Avedon correctly points out that being a biological father won’t magically make someone into a great father. But – especially considering the problems of child poverty, something that may be a more pressing issue in the U.S. than the U.K. – an unwilling father may be better than no father at all.