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Making Fatherhood a Choice

U.S.A. by Paul C. Robbins, Ph.D. January 5, 2006

Should men have the same reproductive rights as women?

In a recent column, feminist Ellen Goodman answers this question in the negative, writing “Some men protest that they are left with no rights and all the bills. But when push comes to shove, one of two people has to make the decision. Those decisions belong to the one who will bear the child.” For Goodman, reproductive rights are only for humans with the right genitalia. (Such a position makes you wonder what she thinks about voting rights--but I digress.)

If the woman alone makes the decision to continue or not continue a pregnancy, should not the woman alone be held responsible for the consequences of her decision? Why should a man be held responsible for a decision he did not make? As former NOW President Karen DeCrow once opined, independent women making independent decisions should not expect men to finance those decisions.

In fact, men are becoming increasingly restive under a system of reproductive laws that gives them responsibilities without the concomitant rights.

Consider this: today a mother can unilaterally abort the child, place the child for adoption, or abandon the child in a "safe haven," all without the father's knowledge or consent. All these actions end the father's rights and responsibilities for the child, even if he wants the child.

If the mother can terminate a father's rights and responsibilities for a child without his knowledge or consent, should not a father be able to terminate his own parental rights and responsibilities? Reproductive rights for men would give men that optionsometimes called a "paper abortion"--in certain circumstances.

Further, a woman can force a man into fatherhood without his knowledge or consent. How? Here are four ways:

  • If married, she can have a child by another man, but the law presumes her husband is the legal father, even if she divorces him and marries the biological father.
  • A woman can name a man as the father in a default paternity judgment, and most states treat him as the legal father even if a later DNA test shows he's not the father.
  • A woman can use the contents of a discarded condom to impregnate herself, even if the man had sex with another woman.
  • A woman can say she's "on the pill" when she's not, inducing a man to have unprotected sex he believes will not result in a pregnancy.
  • If a woman does not consent to sex, she can file rape charges. If a man does not consent to fatherhood, he has no legal recourse. He pays mom or he goes to jail.

Still, men aren't dying from back alley abortions, are they? No, but they are being thrown into jail for failing to pay child support. A woman's decision to keep a child imposes on the father a legal obligation to support the child for 18 years in the amount dictated by the state or go to jail. For example, an underage boy cannot legally consent to sex, but if he has sex with an adult woman who has a child, he will be expected to pay his rapist support when he turns 18. If he fails to pay, he goes to jail.

If the state is going to jail men for failure to pay child support, it should also grant them the same reproductive rights it grants teenage girls.

One reason the state is reluctant to grant men the same rights it grants women is welfare. A single mother can easily become dependent on the state. The state's only remedy is to go after the father, so the states routinely round up dads and put them in jail. But a fundamental human and Constitutional right cannot be denied men so the state can afford to finance welfareand there's little evidence to show jailing dads reduces welfare costs.

Others argue that if a man plays, he should pay. That argument made sense before birth control, Roe v Wade, unilateral placement of infants for adoption, and “safe-haven” abandonment. Today, men have as much right to mitigate the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy as women.

And how do reproductive rights for men affect women's rights? It extends them. Women would still have the same options they have under current law. If she keeps the child, it is her choice and her responsibility. That's fair. She would also have the option of giving up her rights and responsibilities to the father, who could then keep the child, place it for adoption, or abandon the child in a “safe haven.”

The philosophy behind reproductive rights is that the individual, whether a man or a woman, has the fundamental right to make his or her own reproductive choices. Fatherhood, like motherhood, should be a choice, not a legal trap.