MY MOTHER WAS unable to obtain an illegal abortion, though she tried, in 1967 when she learned she was pregnant with me. Instead, she attempted paternity fraud—passing me off to her boyfriend as his child though I was actually fathered by another man. Her boyfriend, who became my putative father, married her and then clued in when I was born, totally healthy, three months “prematurely.” He went along with it, though. They divorced when I was six years old, but he paid child support until I was eighteen, $270 a month. I’m a product of child support, and it was a necessary part of the financial picture for me and my Mom, who did not have a college education and often worked two jobs during my childhood. My mother would race home from work, check the mail, and, when the check was there, we would go to the drive-in window, open until 7 pm, at the local branch of the Union Trust bank to deposit the check. Then she would get $20 cash back (this was the days before ATMs) and we would splurge on a pizza at the neighborhood Italian place next door. On the way home we’d swing by the post office and she’d mail the envelopes with checks she’d been holding in her purse for days to C & P Telephone and to PEPCO for the electric and to Washington Gas. The next day came the grocery store. The connection was very clear: the bills didn’t get paid without the child support. The food didn’t get put on the table without the check from “dad.”
Despite all of this and in complete keeping with my deep-seated feminism, I believe that making fatherhood optional—as motherhood is—and revamping the child support system to stop requiring financial support from noncustodial parents (usually men) who want to opt out early is good for women, men, and the kids in question. In addition, we should further our support of women who choose to opt out of motherhood via abortion or adoption as well. It’s time to make parenthood a true choice, on every level.
Over the past fifteen years, some feminists have argued that ending the current child support system is an important social issue. In the October 19, 2000 issue of Salon, Cathy Young argued that women’s freedom to choose parenthood is a reproductive right men do not have but should. Her article, “A Man’s Right to Choose,” identifies abortion rights and adoption as options that allow women greater sexual freedom than men when a sexual encounter results in conception. While there are alternatives to parental responsibility for women, for men, “in the eyes of the law, it seems that virtually no circumstances, however bizarre or outrageous, can mitigate the biological father’s liability for child support.” Kerrie Thornhill’s article “A Feminist Argument Against Child Support” in the July 18, 2011 issue of Partisans picks up this point, arguing that where birth control and safe abortion are legally available, choosing a sexual encounter should be a different choice than choosing to be a parent. She offers a three-step replacement for the current child support system. First, Thornhill writes that “when informed of a partner’s pregnancy, a man should get a single, time-sensitive opportunity to choose fatherhood.” Second, by accepting, a man would assume all the responsibilities of fatherhood, but by declining he would legally be no different than a sperm donor. Finally, she suggests that for low-income families, state-funded child support should exist. In her article “Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?” for the June 12, 2013 edition of the New York Times, Laurie Shrage echoes Kerrie Thornhill’s sentiment when she opines, “In consenting to sex, neither a man nor a woman gives consent to become a parent.” She argues that if one believes that women shouldn’t be penalized for sexual activity by limiting options such as birth control, abortion, adoption, and safe haven laws (laws that provide a safe space for parents to give up babies), then men’s options shouldn’t be limited either. These writers all point out that motherhood should be a voluntary condition. Shrage and Thornhill agree that the construct that fatherhood after birth is mandatory needs to change.
Feminist response in opposition to the idea of giving men an opt-out of child support has been swift and passionate, including from many writers and publications I deeply respect. Pieces like Mary Elizabeth Williams’ “There Is No ‘Forced Fatherhood’ Crisis,” June 13, 2013, in Salon; Jill Filipovic’s June 17, 2013 blog post at Feministe titled “Is It Unfair to Force Men to Support Their Children?” ; and Meher Ahmad’s “’Forced Fatherhood’? Yeah, Okay, Whatever” in Jezebel from June 13, 2013 all followed quickly on the heels of Laurie Shrage’s New York Times appearance. I have a deep admiration for all three of these writers and publications, yet take strong issues with each piece. Mary Elizabeth Williams tells a personal and compelling anecdote about how her father abandoned her family before she was born. She points out that this occurred before Roe v. Wade. Her story is a poignant example of why abortion and adoption need to be legal and available options, but it is a straw man as an argument against Laurie Shrage’s position. Shrage, along with Thornhill and Young, explicitly states that legal and available abortion is a necessary component of a woman’s reproductive autonomy and only suggests changing child support laws as a means to bring to men a similar reproductive autonomy to what women enjoy. Filipovic wonders at what point a man should no longer be able to sever his parental rights. She doesn’t have to wonder, however, since Shrage both indicates that she is talking about obtaining informed consent at the time of assigning paternity but also states that child support makes sense in the case of divorce because a man already accepted the responsibility of fatherhood. Ahmad goes so far as to acknowledge that the system is unfair to men, but argues that women face so much more unfairness that we shouldn’t care. Her claim that forced motherhood is more difficult than forced fatherhood is certainly true, given the burdens of pregnancy and childbirth. However, that inequity is not a reason to enact policy that forces fatherhood.
No one needs to make me understand how important child support is. I understand firsthand from my own childhood that child support is often a critical part of a child’s economic well-being or lack of same. The thing that keeps kids out of poverty keeps the food on the table. And beyond my own experience, the statistics on the importance of child support are unimpeachable—the money matters. However, I agree with the bulk of the points made in the pieces cited above that suggest we need to allow men an option out of fatherhood. (To be clear, like these authors, I am not talking about cases in which people have decided to have a child together and then one person wants to opt out. I’m talking about a short window during pregnancy—so that women have enough time to make their own decision about which reproductive choice they are going to make in light of the man’s decision, in case that is a factor for them.) As Thornhill argues, men should have a window of time to decide whether or not they are going to sign up for fatherhood, and after that they will either be treated like a sperm donor or be held financially liable. It’s close to parity with the choice women have—and fairness is a basic feminist value. Further, this system allows for women’s total reproductive autonomy and by doing so, we inherently advance women’s sexual and economic autonomy as well as strengthen feminism itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we improve the economic safety and well-being of any resultant children by ensuring adequate state support when necessary.
This system would forward the arguments for women’s reproductive autonomy by making women entirely responsible for the outcome of their choices. Of course, for this to work, we must encourage and enable women to make thoughtful choices about motherhood and reinforce abortion and adoption as available, valid choices. Currently, we tend to treat abortion with a literal whisper and adoption as an outlier. We shouldn’t automatically make the jump that a woman who is unable or unwilling to have an abortion for whatever reason will then have a baby who needs to be supported by her and a father—of course adoption remains a valid choice, even if we tend to dismiss it or ignore it in our rhetoric. We should reinforce our support for and demand for abortion rights—safe, affordable, accessible abortion on demand for all.
However, in the meantime, we should not use problems of access to and affordability of abortion as a reason that men must pay child support (i.e., that women can’t access abortion so they have to have and raise children and men therefore shouldn’t get off the “hook “either). Those women can utilize adoption. It has always confused me that those who are in favor of holding men financially responsible for a child that results from a pregnancy do not attempt to hold men legally responsible for sharing the cost of abortion with a woman who decides to terminate her pregnancy. I think men have a right to opt out of both, but if one argues that men are responsible for the outcome of a pregnancy they created, and abortion is the outcome, why don’t we pursue men for abortion costs? Especially when, according to the National Network of Abortion Funds, more than 200,000 women a year in the U.S seek assistance with paying for their abortions. The Network also points out that 4,000 women a year in the U.S. are denied abortions because they pass the legal gestational limit while trying to raise the funds. Why do we put men on the “hook” for children but not on the “hook” for abortions?
Additionally, lack of access to abortion doesn’t mean we should be unfair to men. We need to stand by women’s reproductive freedom, no matter what choice a woman makes. And a woman who wants a child needs to be prepared to support that child even if the biological father is not willing. I don’t believe that we will ever have true reproductive autonomy until men are offered the option, as women are, to opt out. We will never have full reproductive autonomy if we continue to put an asterisk next to “my body, my choice” and add the footnote “but if I decide to have a baby, pal, you have to pay.”
In the above mentioned Salon piece by Williams, she says, “I would love to live in a world in which no one is ever dragged kicking and screaming into parenthood. But that’s never going to happen.” Why not? Women can opt out now—men should be able to as well. Then we would live in a world where no one is dragged into parenthood. Let us come to focus on that goal and not, as political philosopher Elizabeth Brake says on this issue, “fixate punitively” on getting men to pay.
And, as part of expanding our support of adoption as an option, we should expand our support of women utilizing safe haven laws. Sometimes people say “outside of infant safe haven laws,” like Feministe did in the piece cited above, but let’s stop that. Let’s consider them a reasonable method of relinquishing parental rights, not merely a measure for the desperate. As it stands, in most states, if a woman gives a child up for adoption via other methods, she and the father are still responsible for financial support until the child is adopted. (Safe haven laws vary state by state, but can typically be invoked for three to ninety days, with the average being about forty-five days. North Dakota allows up to one year.)
Perhaps consideration of the fact that it is a choice a woman makes to have a child rather than opting for abortion or adoption, not something beyond her control, will help us move our support of adoption past the wink-wink-nudge-nudge stage. If a woman finds herself in need of economic assistance to raise her child, let us return that obligation fully to the state where it belongs, and was, until the conservative state decided to shift the burden to women’s sexual partners to reduce the welfare burden on government. Children’s economic welfare should not be tied to maternity or paternity. The state needs to stop shirking its responsibility for its most vulnerable citizens—including kids. Further, the one group of “fathers” the state is willing to exempt from child support are sperm donors, sending the message that it’s okay to have a kid and not support it if there was no sex, but if you get some pussy, you are going to pay. Let’s not support that model.
My point is not to wave the flag for “men’s rights.” Most of the agenda of the “men’s rights” faction, which strikes me as largely a backlash against feminism, is intellectually weak and pains me. Rather, my point is that from a feminist standpoint, revamping child support is good for all of us. It removes social stigma from mothers who want to abandon their parental rights. We must be rational and fair and stop saying that differing biology means this can never be fair. It is better for children, it is better for women and men, and it is better for feminism. The burden of pregnancy will never be fair, no, as only women can get pregnant and they must solely face the physical burdens of pregnancy and abortion or birth. But while pregnancy can never be a truly equitable burden, child support can—and should—be fair.