One of the key American narratives is the quest for equality. Our founding national document states that all men are created equal, which, at the time of its composition, literally did mean men - specifically white, land-owning ones. To quote historian Howard Zinn, women "were politically invisible," and equal rights did not extend to black slaves, freedmen, or Native Americans. Since that time, the citizens of this country have been struggling to broaden the definition of equality, so that no matter your gender, race and ethnicity, sexual preference, religion, class, whatever, you will have the same rights and protections under the law as anyone else.
How about moms and dads? A recent piece on Salon, "Make Fatherhood a Man's Choice!" by Anna March, points to a basic inequality between men and women in regard to parenting.
When pregnant, a woman has the choice to decide whether or not to have the baby. If she does, then laws require the father to support the kid, whether the dad has any custody of the child or not. In other words, all a guy can do, if he doesn't want to be a father, is urge the woman to terminate the pregnancy. Should she decide to have it, and chooses to establish his paternity, then he's forced to provide child support.
Well, that sounds fair, right? She's the one who's pregnant, she makes the call. And, the man should have to bear some responsibility for that kid. Especially since he's not the one physically bearing the child!
Ah, but not so fast, says March. It takes two to tango. In cases where both the woman and man decided to have unprotected sex, it's not one person's fault that a pregnancy occurred any more than the other's. And while the woman can opt out of motherhood by terminating the pregnancy or putting the child up for adoption, the man has no right to choose. He's stuck with whatever decision she makes.
March cites a proposal by Oxford professor Kerrie Thornhill that, where birth control and safe abortion are legally available, a man should be given a time-sensitive window in which he decides whether or not he wants to take on the responsibility of fatherhood. Should he father-up (that's my term), then he accepts that he has a financial duty to fulfill until the child turns 18, whether he marries the mother or co-habitates with her, or continues the relationship, etc. Otherwise, he'll be treated under the law like a sperm-donor - unable to demand visitation rights, but also not required to pay child support.
In an Op-Ed in The New York Times, professor of philosophy and gender studies Laurie Shrage proposes that the current laws exist in part so that the government can wring money out of men whose children are on welfare. Because of this, March argues that the final requirement for a truly gender neutral approach to parenthood would be a social safety net providing assistance for kids born into poverty. This would help to ensure that a woman can decide to be a single mother no matter the level of her income.
This is unlikely to happen in our current political environment. As mom blogger Carolyn Castiglia writes, conservative Republicans are outraged that the Affordable Care Act (AKA "Obamacare") requires that basic insurance policies cover maternity and newborn care. They imply that responsibility should fall to the father. These Republicans seem to hold an underlying belief in the upper-middle-class, father-knows-best nuclear family, where a woman doesn't have a child until she marries a man who will provide for her care, as well as their children's.
The fact is, people have sex before marriage and sometimes this results in pregnancy. Accidents happen, mistakes are made, and neither women nor men should be penalized for this. After all, they're not hurting anyone, except the life, happiness, and well-being of their baby. And so I agree with March that paternity laws should be changed, and that a man should only have to assume a financial (and, I hope, emotional) responsibility if he so chooses.
This opinion comes from personal experience. My mother did not plan to become pregnant with me, and when she did, my biological father offered her money for an abortion. (And yes, I think it only fair that a man should split the cost of the abortion with the woman.) However, when my mom refused to have one, he said some nasty things to her and swore he'd never support me, and so things ended badly between them. She never pursued him for child support or tried to establish his paternity. On the contrary - she moved on, reconnecting with a former flame who then raised me as his son.
I'm grateful that my mother had the strength to sever ties with a man who was unprepared and unwilling to be my father, and who, now that I've gotten to know him a bit, I'm sure would have a been resentful of having to pay support, and likely a negative influence in my life. No child should have that kind of relationship with their father, and no father should have to feel burdened by a child that he never wanted to have.
However, we can't realistically talk about American men opting out of fatherhood until all American women have easy, affordable access to birth control as well as abortion procedures and adoption services. That's far from the case. Last week's New York Magazine cover story on abortion reports that in the past 2 years, 26 states have passed 111 provisions restricting the procedure.
Seen in this way, a woman's right to choose is not just a woman's issue, but a man's issue as well. Having sex is a choice that two people make, but because of advances in science and technology, consensual sex does not have to equate consenting to parenthood. A woman should be able to decide whether or not she wants to become a mother, and a man should have that same choice regarding fatherhood. Greater reproductive freedom for women means that neither a woman nor a man has to feel trapped by a pregnancy.