***I originally answered this question in my weekly Madame Noire column yesterday, but I thought the topic was so interesting that I decided to expand on the answer and post it here.***
The other day my friends and I were watching this show about adoption and in this particular episode, this couple, who’ve been dating for a year, accidentally get pregnant. The woman, who already has a child, wants to keep the baby, but also understands that her boyfriend has said explicitly over and over again, even before she got pregnant, that he never wanted children. And would inevitably resent a child if he were to ever have one. The woman ended up giving the child up for adoption, reluctantly at first and then in the follow up, she’d made peace with her decision.
The whole thing was upsetting to watch because it was clear that the woman wanted to keep the baby but only if the man wanted to keep the child as well. But it also made me consider the lack of rights most men have when it comes to parenthood. Are there so many absentee fathers because men who never wanted to be fathers just couldn’t and still can’t see themselves being responsible and present for their children? Conventionally, we’re told if a woman gets pregnant that it’s completely her choice whether she decides to have the child or not. Ultimately it is but, as a man, what role or say do you think men should have in all of this?
Dear Forced Fatherhood,
Damn. This wasn’t exactly a soup question. I’m going to answer this the best I can. But, before I begin, I will also say that there are people much smarter than me who study, read, and write about this particular issue much more often than I do, and after reading this, I’d research their thoughts and opinions about this as well.
Questions like this bring to light how culturally unbalanced our concept of child-rearing tends to be. While men are socially expected to be active and loving fathers, we’re also socialized to believe that a tiny bit of sperm is our only meaningful contribution to this entire process. Think about it: If men and women are supposed to join forces to raise children together, why are little girls the only ones “allowed” to play with baby dolls? Why aren’t teen boys encouraged to consider babysitting as a source of practical experience (and extra income) the same way teen girls are? Why don’t we throw baby showers for men?
I know these questions seem silly, but they only seem silly because we’ve been taught it’s a silly idea for little boys to play with dolls and have any type of experience handling and taking care of babies…which is a silly thing to be taught.
Anyway, the question of pregnancy rights is one where the right, socially accepted answer—that women have complete say over whether a child will or will not be born—has some inherent “wrongness” to it. As mentioned earlier, both men and women have to collaborate to create a baby. So, logically—even considering the fact that women have to carry—a man should have equal say on whether to keep it.
But, in this case, that particular wrong of a man not having any say is better than any alternative solution.
Yes it’s “unfair” that men don’t have any legal say on the decision to keep a baby, especially since he will be legally obligated to provide for that child for the next 18 years. But this “unfairness” is for the greater good.
If you allow men to have legal say over whether a woman can keep a baby, you’re restricting her legal right to have complete dominion over her body.
And, if you don’t hold men responsible for children they helped create—basically, if you allow men to legally opt out before the child is born—it would ultimately hurt the baby. Also, think of how messy this could be legally. What’s to stop a man who “agreed” to care and provide for the baby when it was conceived to say “Um, nevermind.” three months into term? And, what’s to stop him from changing his mind again once the baby is born?
Basically, the “wrongness” of men having no say in that process is less wrong than what would happen if men did.
Also, I wouldn’t blame the prevalence of absentee fathers on this issue. Yes, people — men and women — need to make smarter sexual choices. There is no such thing as an “accidental” pregnancy, especially when their are multiple effective means of birth control—including the pull out method. (Yes. The pull out method works. It only doesn’t work when you…don’t pull out.)
But while I’m willingly to concede that some men do get “trapped,” most who selfishly skirt their responsibilities do it because…they’re selfish and irresponsible. The pregnancy rights laws and some “lying-ass woman” didn’t jam them up. Their own penises did.
The best solution to all of this is to be in a committed relationship where both parties are on the same page about children, and both parties respect and consider each other’s opinions. Even then, the woman still has the final say. Yes, its unfair, but there’s a small device that goes a very long way to prevent that unfairness from ever happening:
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)