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.
‘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?