Shrage in NYT on ‘forced fatherhood’

Lauri Shrage With the prospect of father’s day ahead over the weekend, Laurie Shrage (left) has a piece for the New York Times confronting the issue of ‘forced fatherhood’, and whether (in limited contexts, namely, those in which women can in fact access contraception and abortion services) women’s reproductive autonomy is unfairly greater than that of men. In an instance in which a woman becomes pregnant without the consent of the male partner to the pregnancy (e.g. due to contraceptive accident), she suggests that we have an unfair case of ‘forced fatherhood’. In such cases, a man is required to undertake the significant (at least) financial responsibilities that he has not voluntarily undertaken.

Shrage writes:

‘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.’

Policies that require biological fathers to take on such financial responsibilities are punitive, she argues, and can be viewed as a way of controlling sexual behaviour (in the way that inability to access abortion punishes women for being sexually active).

Moreover, rejecting this policy that requires the biological fathers to undertake financial responsibilities could open up ways of conceiving fatherhood that move beyond biological relationship (I like this point: as my two siblings and I write our father’s day cards, only one of us will be celebrating our biological father, but he’s a father no more and no less to each of us!).

This raises many interesting questions about what grounds parental responsibilities, and has -unsurprisingly – generated considerable response from the feminist blogosphere.

Here’s my take on the objections that have come up (after the break):

i. some rest on consequentialist considerations: would permitting men to opt out of father hood have problematic consequences (on men’s sexual behaviour; for women’s ability to exercise any control over the outcomes of their sexual interactions)?

ii. others, such as Williams’ piece in Slate, consider the application of Shrage’s concern for fairness in (our current) non-ideal context: even if it is unfair to require ‘accidental’ or ‘forced’ fathers to bear such responsibilities, it is less unfair than the alternative of providing no support for the child and single parent (which would involve the entrenchment of existing disadvantage, in many cases).

iii. others (see Meher Ahmad in Jezebel) rely on the idea that the complaint is misplaced, because forced motherhood (if one can’t, as not uncommon, readily access abortion) is a whole bunch of unfairness too.

It seems to me that these objections are important, but don’t show that the principled position itself is mistaken (only that there’s a whole bunch more unfairness to be concerned with too).

Shrage’s position does seem to rely on the idea, though, that all of our responsibilities and obligations to others are voluntarily undertaken, and this seems to me wrong. But if we reject that assumption, then the question remains whether being (proximally!) causally implicated in the bringing about of a child generates more responsibility than the responsibility all have to ensure the welfare of children. And the question of who should bear most of those responsibilities in currently unjust contexts (affluent tax payers, or low income biological fathers to whom Shrage refers) seems to me to be the right question to be asking.

Further thoughts, feminist philosophers?

13 thoughts on “Shrage in NYT on ‘forced fatherhood’

  1. […] While we’re having the interesting conversation about (largely hypothetical, given our current social context) issues of ‘forced fatherhood’, it’s also worth having a conversation about forced motherhood. Forced motherhood is, sadly, something that happens all the time, often with severe consequences that extend far beyond economic burdens. […]

  2. I think part of the problem, which you have already noted is that issues surroundings one’s body and issues surrounding families are being conflated. I view families as the responsibility of a whole society, but bodily integrity is the choice of an individual; sometimes these things seem to come into conflict, i.e. if a woman wants a child (her bodily integrity) versus the child being well supported in a country that relegates this completely to the two biological individuals involved. I think you stated it nicely, one set of rules is about what is best for children given the current situation.

  3. This is a messy issue but I find the title of the piece a bit problematic: the title makes clear that the answer she is going to provide is “no”; after all, who would argue that forcing someone do something they don’t want to do or that is against their interests is (ceteris paribus) fair? Many who disagree with her, however, think that fatherhood is not forced, in any useful sense, upon biological fathers who impregnate women unintentionally. (Their being forced amounts to a mandated 18 years of child support payments, which is hardly being forced to be a FATHER.) Others who disagree concede that there is some sense in which those men are forced to be fathers but that in the domain of human reproduction talking about parental responsibility in terms of fairness is confused.

  4. Excepting cases of female-on-male rape (which are of course important, but are not what the article is talking about), I’m not really seeing how it’s possible to be accidentally become a father in the way which makes having to support the child unjust. Surely there’s some implicit understanding, in having sex with someone, that someone might get pregnant: we assume that the condom won’t fail, etc., but we know it might, and we take the risk.

    I see it as analogous to this case, which is less emotionally charged: If I, driving a car hard (but in a way I know to be safe because, say, I’m a professional racer), maim someone, I might have to legally pay for that. I didn’t intend the injury, I had good reason to believe that no crash would result from my actions: but it’s nonetheless surely right that I am punished for it, or pay compensation for it, or whatever the legal system requires.

    There are still consequentialist reasons why there should be more freedom for fathers to not pay child-support; but that obviously only indirectly has anything to do with justice.

  5. One thing that really jumped out to me about Shrage’s article, setting completely to the side her framing of the issue in terms of reproductive autonomy (which is a problematic framing for, I think, the reasons listed by other folks) is this:

    If it could be done in the right way, I really think giving the father the choice to embrace or renounce parenthood could very well work out to the best interests of all parties involved – mother, father, child, and society at large. Maybe you’d call this “consequentialist.” Maybe you’d call it “justice.” I don’t know. I’m not particularly concerned with the way the issues get carved up.

    What I see in front of me is a world where there are lots of disinterested and/or abusive fathers who would perhaps be out of the picture altogether if they were given the option to renounce parenthood. If the state stepped in and provided the child support (i.e., payments, subsidies for child care, more support for mothers in general, a ban on the other suing for child custody down the road if he changes his mind) – obviously a big, big condition – then it looks to me like it’s a great proposal. The mother benefits from not having a deadbeat second parent who doesn’t want the child. The mother doesn’t have a potentially abusive partner with whom she’s trapped. The father doesn’t have to take care of a child he doesn’t want. The child gets a better home environment. And society benefits from not having to clog the courts. It seems to me like win, win, win, win.

  6. James Camien McGuiggan:

    What if the woman, perhaps very attracted by the man, tells him that she is taking the pill while she is not, thinking that she will not get pregnant, but miscalculates and gets pregnant? Perhaps neither of them has a condom in the situation.

    I think that the man is still obliged to support the child, but I can understand that he may think that it’s unfair.

  7. I there are two problems with Shrage’s argument. The first is that only the woman faces 40 weeks of pregnancy, which is attended by a long list of medical complications and health conditions even in normal cases. If she were not permitted the option of “walking away” (i.e., abortion) without her male partner’s consent, she would be coerced into these harms to her health. However, there is no parallel prospect of burden for a man should be he denied the option of walking away when the woman chooses to continue the pregnancy. In other words, the greater freedom on her part is justified in response to the greater burden she faces.

    Second, if a man refuses fatherhood when his female partner chooses to continue her pregnancy, this leaves her with the entire burden of raising the child herself. On the other hand, if a woman “walks away from” a pregnancy (i.e., gets an abortion), then there will no longer be a child in need of care; her refusal of motherhood would not leave a child for whom the male partner would then have the entire burden of raising himself. In other words, the man’s walking away harms the woman potentially much more than the woman’s walking away potentially harms the man (in the average case), which is why his options are justifiably more restricted than hers are.

  8. swallerstein:

    Yeah, that’s a bit more grey. But pills aren’t perfect anyway (so far as I understand), so I wonder if that weakens the objection. But also I wonder if the kind of dishonesty of lying about contraception is more of a part with the dishonesty of infidelity, and so not a matter for the law. Not least because how do you know whether there was dishonesty between the parties? But I suspect there’s a deeper reason that I’m too tired to articulate. (Bedtime now I think.)

  9. I think a good case to consider in these discussions is surrogacy, because it positions the egg provider as a separate individual as the pregnant person (whereas the majority of pregnancies involve an egg provider who also is the pregnant person).

    Assume that a person becomes pregnant by receiving an embryo IVF style that was not intended for them but rather belonged to a pair of people who, after creating the embryo, had opted not to use it/not to have a child (to ensure that we’re making the hypothetical a fully unplanned/undesired resulting child). Who has the right to abort in this case? Not the egg provider, surely. Feminists have not traditionally supported either forced abortion or denial of abortion to surrogates/pregnant people carrying fetuses that do not contain their genetic material. The right to abort lies with the person who is pregnant, because of the infringement on bodily autonomy, health risks, etc. arising from pregnancy. This person may be the egg provider, but, there are actually real life cases where this is not the case and the egg provider has no more right to deny/coerce abortion or support in those cases than a sperm provider (some areas don’t have laws that have caught up to technology and there can be weird legal issues with “birth mother” vs. “biological mother” and custody rights, but those are not disproportionately beneficial to egg providers where egg providers don’t have rights/responsibilities, because a fair portion of them want custody rights of the resulting child).

    So, let’s go through the stages here and see where an egg provider vs. a sperm provider in a non-IVF pregnancy would stand in terms of control:

    1) conception: assuming full consent and a non-abusive general relationship, equal. Both can take steps to regarding contraception, both take some degree of risk.

    2) pregnancy: the pregnant person has rights to abort or not abort (in an ideal world, de facto a lot of pregnant people don’t have this). This is not a denial of rights to the sperm provider, because the sperm provider is not pregnant and therefore not subject to the bodily autonomy infringement of pregnancy or the physical and emotional risks of being pregnant.

    3) birth: again equal, in an ideal world presuming otherwise ideal factors (no abuse, equal caretaking, etc.). Women and other egg providers can be required to pay child support (not to mention that the majority of fathers pay no child support over here in reality) and have caretaking duties (again, in reality, women typically bear the lion’s share of actual caretaking of children).

    There’s no discrepancy in actual rights to refuse parenthood. There’s only the issue of the pregnant person having control of their body while pregnant and there’s no way to get rid of that without stripping pregnant people of bodily autonomy and forcing them to have physically damaging and altering experiences against their will and forced birth or forced surgery and forced ending of their pregnancy-all of which are major, major violations of a pregnant person’s body and rights. It’s not via oppression that cis men rarely become pregnant/rarely are the pregnant person, it’s the result of most of them not having uteruses. They have equal rights in terms of parenthood, they merely lack what they should not have-rights over pregnant people’s bodies.

    (Sorry, I know I’m not a regular commenter and that was looong, I was referred here via a twitter link and this is one of the my repeated things, so forgive me for going on and on.)

  10. Males can access contraception in the form of condoms + spermicidal jelly (in case condom breaks) or vasectomy (reversible if he changes his mind later). If you don’t want kids (male or female) choose the contraception that works for your gender.

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