Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Forced Fatherhood

Laurie Shrage has written a blog post on the New York Times Opinionator blog on the question whether men now have fewer reproductive rights than women, especially once an "accidental" conception has happened.  This is a topic on which I'm likely to write a very loooooong commentary.  My apologies for that in advance.

What Shrage argues is that once the flock of happy little sperm escapes confinement and one of them (at least) ends up devoured by that omnivorous egg (or eggs), the man has been yoked to fatherhood, whether he wishes it or not,  if  the owner of those eggs decides on motherhood.   What that involuntary fatherhood seems to mean, when viewed in minimal terms, is that the man must pay child maintenance for over a decade.

The impregnated woman (a disgusting term, I think, for some reason) has the choice of abortion (at least in a few states in the US and until the Republicans cut off that option), and she has the choice of completing the pregnancy.  She even has the option of giving the child up for adoption or abandoning it legally.  But Shrage thinks the man has none of those  options.

I think she is mistaken about the latter two alternatives.  A single father, with custody of his child, could give the child up for adoption, in the absence of the mother or any knowledge of her, and a single father could also deposit the child in one of those hospitals which allow it as a legal option.  Thus, it is only the abortion alternative that men who don't want to be fathers are not allowed to enforce.  And that's because the process is taking place inside the woman's body, which gives her some additional rights.

So what do I think about this question of forced fatherhood?  My thoughts are complex, but I can tell right off the bat that until we invent an artificial womb and 100% effective birth control when not using it, the basic setup remains tilted because of the fact that it is the woman's body in which the process takes place. 

And in that sense men do, indeed, have fewer non-reproductive and reproductive rights, in a few privileged places where both contraception and abortions are widely available.  In large parts of this world men probably have better non-reproductive and reproductive rights than women do.

The basic setup would be tilted the other way round if men were like seahorses and performed the pregnancy.  Then they would have extra say in what is going to happen to their bodies.

Historically speaking, a man having sex with a woman he wasn't married to mostly got away scot-free, whether she got pregnant or not.  That's the background against which these developments should be judged.  Getting away scot-free is not what happens with unintended pregnancies.  The woman must undergo pregnancy and birth or an abortion, as a minimum, and it's not realistic to argue that the man should have zero negative consequences from having unprotected sex or a contraceptive fail.

And once the child is born, there are three individuals one must be concerned about.  The rights the parents have at that time must be balanced with the rights and needs of the child.  Child maintenance, for instance, is about the child, not its custodial parent.  If the custodial parent cannot make it on her or his own, then the government (all of us) must chip in.

In short, the question is complicated and doesn't lend itself to easy or flippant answers of the type the pro-lifers or forced-birthers use as advice to women:  If you don't want to be a parent, just keep your legs crossed.  I wonder if they are going to use a related exhortation to men who don't want to become parents, either.

An extreme interpretation of Srage's arguments suggests  to me something utterly impractical:  The idea that a man could simply declare he didn't want to be a father and then escape all consequences of the conception, with the possible exception of paying some of the pregnancy- or abortion-related costs (as Srage proposes).  If such a rule was adopted and applied across the board, the incentives for men to use contraception could be vastly reduced.  And logically that should result in a lot less free-wheeling heterosexual sex in general, once the rules became generally known to all women, too, because such a rule would increase the costs of sex-for-just-fun for women.  Like returning to the old historical rules, eh?

Still, I can see how the current arrangement can be rotten for men who end up becoming fathers when they don't wish that outcome.  Nobody should be forced into that position, or tricked into it and so on.

That's why I wonder why there seems to be no lucrative market for a truly effective male contraceptive pill.  It would solve all these problems in the simplest possible way.  Couples could still use condoms for the prevention of disease but a breaking condom would not be such a calamity.  And men would be in control of their own fertility and could not be forced into fatherhood that easily. 

Indeed, creating pressure on a male contraceptive pill seems the obvious answer here.  It would much reduce the magnitude of the problem, given comparable data from the female contraceptive pill.