I’m a man who helps women understand men. Not all men. Not in every situation. But, in general, if you want to hear how honest, loyal, sensitive, successful, confident, self-aware (and self-aggrandizing) men think, this blog is a pretty good place to start.
Which is why I’m excerpting what is sure to be a controversial post that recently ran in the New York Times. It was written by Laurie Shrage, a women’s studies professor in Florida and it’s like she took the words right out of my brain. In short, while no one in the world will defend deadbeat dads who don’t support their kids after a divorce, that’s a completely different scenario than men who are forced to support a child that they never wanted to have. In her opinion – and in mine – the law should reflect this obvious difference.
“If a man accidentally conceives a child with a woman, and does not want to raise the child with her, what are his choices? Surprisingly, he has few options in the United States. He can urge her to seek an abortion, but ultimately that decision is hers to make. Should she decide to continue the pregnancy and raise the child, and should she or our government attempt to establish him as the legal father, he can be stuck with years of child support payments.”
I’ve been around long enough to know that many women have the reflexive answer that if she accidentally got pregnant, he should be on the hook for it. But that doesn’t quite hold up logically. He can’t have a say over the birth of the fetus (because it’s her body), but she can have a say about whether he supports the accidentally conceived child for the next 18 years?
“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. In a 2005 article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy she wrote, “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.” At most, according to Brake, men should be responsible for helping with the medical expenses and other costs of a pregnancy for which they are partly responsible.”
Continues the author, “Feminists have long held that women should not be penalized for being sexually active by taking away their options when an accidental pregnancy occurs. 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. Moreover, 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. 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.”
Is any of this ideal? Of course not. But it’s reality. No matter what we legislate, men and women are going to get drunk, hook up, forget to wear a condom, and have to deal with the consequences of unplanned pregnancies. The question is: what’s fair? Shrage seems to suggest that the current laws are anything but.
“However, just as court-ordered child support does not make sense when a woman goes to a sperm bank and obtains sperm from a donor who has not agreed to father the resulting child, it does not make sense when a woman is impregnated (accidentally or possibly by her choice) from sex with a partner who has not agreed to father a child with her. In consenting to sex, neither a man nor a woman gives consent to become a parent, just as in consenting to any activity, one does not consent to yield to all the accidental outcomes that might flow from that activity.”
As the author proves, one can be a feminist, demand equal rights, and still believe that a system that penalizes men so harshly for an innocent mistake is unjust. While you are entitled to disagree with me, please understand that my whole business is about learning to put yourself in men’s shoes and find a measure of sympathy and understanding for them. By insisting that a man pay hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime for a one-night stand and a broken condom, you are not indicating that you’re considering his plight at all.
Concludes Shrage, “Policies that punish men for accidental pregnancies also punish those children who must manage a lifelong relationship with an absent but legal father. These “fathers” are not “dead-beat dads” failing to live up to responsibilities they once took on – they are men who never voluntarily took on the responsibilities of fatherhood with respect to a particular child.”
Your thoughts below are greatly appreciated.