My post on “Roe v. Wade for men,” i.e., a law that would give men the ability to terminate their parental rights and responsibilities to an unwanted child within a brief period of learning of the pregnancy, sparked a lively debate both on this blog and on others. One response that I’d like to reply to comes from Jane Galt:
Myself, I just can’t get worked up about those poor, powerless men. As I’ve said before, reproduction is never going to be fair, and the current law strikes me as a reasonable compromise between the needs of the women and the needs of the child. Men get the short end of the stick there . . . but they don’t have to breast feed, or lose their figure, or have to rush to get married because their biological clock is ticking, and I’ve never heard them clamouring for a legal remedy to any of that. Although I might change my mind if men who want to terminate their parental rights were willing to undergo painful surgery with a non-zero chance of killing or sterilizing them in order to secure their “choice”.
It’s interesting that the woman and the child are the only two parties Jane seems to consider. As for the argument that other biological disparities in reproduction favor men, it is something that I have considered myself. But here’s a point to ponder: our society has, in fact, been steadily evolving toward remedying — technologically, legally, and socially — the reproductive inequalities that disadvantage women. Women can escape the burden of unwanted pregnancy by having an abortion and using birth control (there is still no “male pill”). Women who don’t want to rush into marriage because their biological clock is ticking can now have a baby on their own without being stigmatized; see, for instance, this New York Times Magazine article, published the other day, about women pursuing artificial insemination. (As I noted in my other the concern about children being born with no right to paternal support seems missing in those cases.)
But the reproductive inequalities that disadvantage men remain, and they include a few others — besides having no option to avoid the burden of unwanted parenthood once conception has occurred — that Jane overlooks. For instance, a man who wants to be a father can have his child’s existence concealed from him, for years or even forever. (See more below on that subject.) And a man who has trouble finding a mate will find it a lot more difficult than a single woman to reproduce on his own: he’s need to find a surrogate mother, not a sperm donor. The biological clock is, of course, a female disadvantage — one which I am now facing myself, as a single 43-year-old woman. But I wonder how many men who are single and childless at 43 actually go on to father children; for most, I suspect, male biology provides only about 10 more years in which they can fool themselves with the thought that it’s not too late.
This isn’t really a plea for “those poor men.” I don’t believe that men in America are an oppressed class. But I do believe that, as we grapple with unprecedented changes in gender roles, we need to address the issue of equality in reproductive rights and responsibilites more seriously.
Which brings me to my column in today’s Boston Globe: “Equal Rights for Unwed Fathers.”
WHILE THE ”Roe v. Wade for men” lawsuit filed in Michigan earlier this month seeks the right for men to terminate their financial obligations to a child in case of unwanted pregnancy, another dispute over male reproductive rights has been making news as well. Last week, a front-page New York Times story explored the plight of unwed fathers who fight for children placed for adoption by the mothers.
One of the men profiled in the article, 23-year-old Arizona resident Adam Clayton Jones, learned that his former fiancée — who had ended their relationship — was pregnant and seeking to put up the baby for adoption in Florida, where they had met while attending college. An adoption agency called Jones to ask for his consent to the adoption. He refused, fully intending to raise the baby himself. But Jones did not know that in order to exercise his parental rights, he had to register with the state registry for unmarried fathers. Because he missed the deadline, he lost all his rights and has never seen his child, now 18 months old.
Sadly, this case is all too typical. While divorced fathers complain that they are often treated as second-class parents, never-married fathers are much lower on the totem pole. True, their situation has improved since the 1970s, when an unwed father’s children could be given up for adoption without his consent even if he had raised them.
Today, partly as a result of several legal controversies in which unmarried fathers successfully contested adoptions, the majority of states have ”putative father registries” by means of which a man can assert his paternity. But the purpose of these registries often seems to be less to protect the rights of the father than to protect the rights of everyone else: the mother who wants to give up the baby, the adoption agency, and the adoptive parents. Some would say that they also protect the rights of the child. But that depends on whether you believe that a child is better off being adopted than being raised by the biological father.
In most states, the unwed father has to file with the registry either within a certain period of the child’s birth — from five to 30 days — or, as in Massachusetts, at any time before the adoption petition is filed. But neither the mother nor the adoption agency has any obligation to notify the man of the adoption, or of the fact that he is a father or father-to-be. Even when the father is notified, he may not be told about the putative father registry — which is what happened to Jones, whose attorney, Allison Perry, refers to the Florida registry as a ”well-kept secret.” That is the situation in most states. Not only are most men unaware of the registries’ existence, even some lawyers don’t know about them.
Amazingly, many specialists believe that it’s too much of a burden on the woman or the adoption agency to require that a man be notified of his paternity. Instead, they argue that it should be his responsibility to file with the putative father registry every time he enters a sexual relationship with a woman, on the off-chance that a pregnancy may result — a requirement that, if nothing else, smacks of a humiliating invasion of privacy. Surely, it is far more efficient and less invasive to limit the notification requirement to cases in which a pregnancy actually happens, and to place the burden on those who are aware of the pregnancy.
You would think that, unlike men who seek to avoid their paternal responsibilities, fathers who want to be responsible for raising their own children would at least encounter societal sympathy and support. Sadly, that has not generally been the case. Unwed fathers who contest adoptions are often faulted for not taking affirmative steps to find out about the child’s existence, and in some cases are blamed even if they were actively deceived by the mother. Often, they’re suspected of being abusers whose real hidden motive is to control the mother.
The issues of men burdened with responsibility for unwanted pregnancies, and of men who are not allowed to be fathers to wanted children, are linked by a common thread. Biology has made men and women unequal with regard to reproduction. In recent decades, thanks to both technology and social change, we have made strides to alleviate the inequality for women, helping them avoid unwanted childbearing. But we have lagged far behind in equalizing the situation for men. We cannot ask men to be equal parents while giving virtually all the power in reproductive decisions to women.
More: The question of what constitutes reproductive “advantage” and “disadvantage” is, of course, a complicated one, and depends very much on a person’s own values and priorities. To me, for instance, being able to reproduce without going through the physical ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth seems like an unquestionably good thing, and if technology made it possible for fetuses to be safely incubated in an artificial womb, I’d think, myself, that women should be cheering. Yet I’ve heard quite a few women say that pregnancy and childbearing give them a sense of connection to the child — and of their life-giving power — that they would not give up for mere physical convenience.
I’d also like to add something here about a proposal one of my commenters, mythago, made in the Roe v. Wade for men thread: instead of allowing men to “opt out” of unwanted paternity, to have an “opt-in” system in which an unmarried father would be presumed to have no paternal rights or responsibilities unless he declared his paternity by a certain deadline (or unless he could show that he had been misled about the birth of the child). I have serious reservations about this because, basically, I don’t think that “no paternal involvement” should be the default position, for cultural/social reasons at least as much as economic ones. In fact, I think that in the unlikely event that the law changes to allow a paternal “opt-out,” also known in some circles as a “male abortion” (the legal termination, within a certain window of time, of all paternal rights and responsbilities), the procedure should (1) impose non-negligible financial costs, and (2) include the requirement of serious pre-termination counseling. That would include discussing the experiences of men who have committed themselves to fatherhood despite the child being initially unwanted, and making sure that the man fully understands the possibility that some day he may want to reconnect with his growing or already grown child but will most likely have no chance to do so.
I don’t think that “walking away” should be encouraged.