There’s a discussion over at the Atheism+ forum that gets at the heart of several questions that make me uncomfortable, which means it’s one that I need to examine. The thread is about whether men should have the right to decline parental responsibility.
Here’s my contribution, which hasn’t been approved yet.
How to start this, beyond wry amusement at the idea that the “precious paycheck” is any more or less necessary to provide food and shelter because of your gender, or that once a child is conceived, the biological parents somehow exist in a legal and social vacuum that separates them from whatever else is going on in their lives, or in each other’s.
I guess the best way would be to define the question as I see it, so my answer makes some kind of sense. The trouble with that is that this problem can be approached from many frames of reference. The first thing that makes this a problem instead of an idle question is that the question is basically posed as “who gets to decline potential parental obligations, when, and under what circumstances?” The assumption of conflict is built-in, as is the assumption that no action or thought need be taken if everyone wants the child.
That’s a serious problem, as it assumes that the decision requiring action and examination is the negative one (abortion, abdicating parental rights, giving the child up for adoption), rather than the positive one (raising the child). Please forgive my language, but am I the only one who sees that as really fucked up?
Decisions about abortion and parental consent do not occur in a vacuum or in isolation from each other; the decision to have a child is often dependent on the ability of whoever is willing to raise the child to actually have the resources to do so (assuming abortion/adoption are options). To make matters more complex, for cultural and/or biological reasons, there is a lot of emotion involved in this which makes decision-making even harder.
I suspect it would be far better if rather than the strange system we have now, that parental custody, employer benefits such as maternity leave, and government benefits ranging from tax deductions to food stamps were dependent upon the affirmative declaration of one or more people (whether the genetic parents or not) saying “we want to raise this child,” with the genetic mother and father having right of first refusal (in that order). In this scenario, if someone wants to adopt the child at birth, then they register as the parents and pay for the maternity care. If adoption happens after birth, the parents are reimbursed by the person(s) affirming parental responsibility. If the conception is due to rape of the mother, then the father forfeits any custodial rights. If the conception is due to rape or deception by the mother (it happens), the father has the option to not affirm himself as the parent. Nothing further is needed.
Now on to the bad side, where I try and break my idea with worst-case situations. In each case I assume one child except for the last one (but the answers would be the same for multiple births):
1. What if no person other than the mother wants to assume parental responsibility, the mother doesn’t want to abort, doesn’t want to give the child up for adoption, but doesn’t want to assume parental responsibility?
Then by the same biological and moral necessities that place the decision of abortion in her hands and hers alone, then at birth she assumes sole legal custody, with all the rights and obligations therein. I predict an unhappy life for the child. ._.
2. What if the mother is poor, single, and in a coma throughout the conception? In a sane country, single-payer health care would take care of the mother until she could formally accept or decline. If she declined, the child would be placed for adoption. Until she wakes up, the child would be placed in foster care, with the state as guardian in the (nominal) name of the mother.
3. What if it’s ten years before she wakes up?
At some point (I’m not a child psychologist, so I couldn’t tell you when), a sane country would have to settle the matter in court, taking into account the living conditions of the child (hey, it could be an incredibly happy, loving, foster home where the foster parents want to keep the child). This would be heart-rending, but extreme situations often are.
4. What if she is an invalid on government assistance when she wakes up?
The same thing that happens to anyone in that situation, with the added burden of the decision whether or not to assume legal custody. Life sucks. Often. ._.
5. What if she never wakes up, and just remains in her coma?
Then the child is a ward of the state as above until they reach the age of majority.
6. What if it is a multiple birth and she wants some, but not all of the children?
That is her right.
Now the problems with this are that living here in the U.S., we focus on adversarial situations, have crappy health care, and a decaying social safety cheesecloth. So once again, who gets to decline, and under what circumstances, but this time from a realistic perspective (because there’s no way we’re going to move to a model where parenting is by legal default an affirmative decision)?
There are no good answers here, because the assumptions are rooted in conflict, but I have one fundamental question: isn’t a core goal of feminism to get away from the idea that reproduction is the necessary and proper consequence of sex? If so, then it has to work for both genders. Yes, this means a man can “walk out” (I don’t believe this should be possible after birth, or perhaps the second trimester unless he’s just finding out about it with a phone call from the hospital), but it also means that the sex-primarily-as-reproduction argument is harder to turn against women.
(added to this will be another one I thought of after I hit submit: what if the man is in the coma? Then the father can legally adopt with the permission of the mother.)