Abdication of Parental Rights

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.)

A Simple Answer to a Stupid Dilemma

As I’ve discussed before, as election season approaches and every voter faces the prospect of looking at what they have (or haven’t) done, many are facing this moment of truth with wailing, gnashing of teeth, wearing of hair shirts and public penitent flagellation. Today’s example is as follows:

The time has come again for the liberals to attack those on their left. Such things are cyclical, like the coming of the cicadas. This is interesting timing because the liberals I know and read are very, very confident that Obama is running away with the election. And this itself is interesting, as the typical justification of the rampant redbaiting and Peter Beinart-style calls for purges of the unfaithful is that we’re in a trench war, here, people, and Charlie is everywhere, and so if the Democrats were to nominate Zell Miller your job would be to shut the fuck up and support him as he destroyed everything we believe in, because it’s a two party system. But, now, see, because they think that their guy is winning, it’s also not the right time because… well. You know. It’s never the time. They are, in every sense, kept people, owned by a party and its leader, and they have given away every part of themselves that is capable of critical thought.

I don’t know how else it say it, considering I’ve said it a thousand times. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. I want it so bad I don’t know how to act or what to do. I want it so bad I can’t sit still or sleep at night. I want it with everything I have that’s capable of want. And I know that this is the kind of talk that invites pure contempt from those like Tbogg, who have only the idiom of sarcasm and derision and cannot imagine straightforward moral sentiment. But that’s the truth. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. And the innocent people we kill the most, these days, are Muslim. And the policy of the Obama administration has expanded the zone in which we kill innocent Muslims, they have shown no interest in stopping killing innocent Muslims, and in fact their campaign constantly brags about the drone program which kills innocent Muslims. That’s just true. All of it is just true. Obama is directly responsible for the expansion of hostilities against Muslims targets which result in the death of people who have taken no violent action against the United States. Voting for him cannot, does not, and will not challenge that reality.

I don’t know who is telling him not to challenge this outside of the voting booth, because that’s a stupid thing to say (and I believe him that people are saying this; I’ve gotten shit myself for not being sufficiently pro-Obama), but guess what: politicians have absolutely no way of connecting your motives for (not) voting as you choose to with the outcome of the election. It’s a stupid, pointless gesture to not-vote in protest unless your sole goal is to make yourself feel good, unless you don’t live in a swing state. I live in VA, so this race is very contested here. If you live in state that’s heavily weighted one way or another, then feel free to sit it out (or better yet, vote for a third-party candidate), but the action will be meaningless without more action outside of election season to back it up. To paraphrase Noam Chomsky in the video below, of course you can fucking vote for the lesser of two evils, because you get less goddamn evil!

And let’s get back to this little gem from the comment above, because I want to highlight it:

I don’t know how else it say it, considering I’ve said it a thousand times. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. I want it so bad I don’t know how to act or what to do.

I’m sure these people could use some help. Or these people. Do you vote in your primary elections? Do you donate money outside of election season (and include a note as to why you’re donating or why it’s not more, or why you’re donating a goddamn penny because you’re so pissed off)? If you don’t know how to act or what to do, then ask people who are doing something and be willing to follow through. Find some way to help and do it, but don’t pretend that casting a ballot is the time to make that difference. From my earlier post:

Think of it this way. You’re on a large train, and the track divides at regular intervals. During the ride, you can contact people who are building the line ahead of you to influence the way the tracks are going to go, but once the tracks are built, nothing can change them short of a natural disaster. Just before you get to the switch where you can go in one (or more) possible directions, everyone on the train gets a vote as to which way the train will go. No matter what you do the train is going on one of the tracks that have already been laid out. If you wanted a different option, your only time to influence it was the long ride before the vote (write-in candidates just do not win without considerable groundwork; think of Lisa Murkowski in Alaska). Whether you spent this time slamming down drinks in the lounge car or frantically calling ahead to try and change the direction the rails are being laid out, at this point it doesn’t matter. The options have now been decided, and the train is not going to stop. With considerable difficulty you can get off the train, but that can be a complex (and sometimes dangerous) process that can be hard to reverse if you change your mind, but the train will not stop.

So the question on a ballot is, “which way will the train go?”

And once again DJW’s re-telling of hilzoy’s wonderful response:

I can’t recall when or where, but I believe it was hilzoy who gave the best answer I’ve ever heard to this kind of question, which I wholeheartedly endorse. It was, essentially, that she would be indifferent to voting for the least bad viable candidate when things had gotten so bad that she was actively involved in violent rebellion against the government. Significantly, this is a higher threshold than “things are so bad violent revolution is justified in the abstract, but I’m not currently doing it”, but actual active rebellion. This seems exactly right to me. Either you should use the tools available to make better/reduce the harm of the current state, of you should begin engaging in a plot to overthrow it, or find a way to contribute to an ongoing one. If the latter is not to your taste because you have other priorities, or you (probably wisely) deem it unlikely to be unsuccessful and as such not a reasonable risk of life and limb, you have no reason to avoid the first strategy, and you get no credit for moral high ground for avoiding it.

And if those are too complicated for you, then I offer you the simple, traditional response: “don’t mourn, organize!