Is "Forced Fatherhood" Fair? FIU Professor Laurie Shrage on Her Controversial New York Times Op-Ed
Yesterday, a piece by FIU philosophy and women's and gender studies professor Laurie Shrage inspired quite the Twitstorm -- as well as one rebuttal, sure to be followed by more today.
Titled "Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?" and published Wednesday morning on the New York Times' philosophy blog "The Stone," Shrage's essay makes the case for an expanded definition of fatherhood and for giving men "more control" over whether they become parents.
In the United States, motherhood, she writes, is more or less optional:
[W]omen and girls have access to affordable and safe contraception and abortion services, and ... [to] programs [which] assist mothers in distress find foster or adoptive parents.
A man, on the other hand, has considerably fewer options if he accidentally impregnates a woman.
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So, she asks: "Do men now have less reproductive autonomy than women? Should men have more control over when and how they become parents, as many women now do?"
Should a man "be stuck with years of child support payments" if he is clear he doesn't want to be a parent, if he fails to give "informed consent"?
Criticism was quick and fierce, making bizarre bedfellows of people as disparately minded as Slate blogger and feminist writer Amanda Marcotte and RedState cofounder Ben Domenech -- the latter prefacing the piece on Twitter with a "welcome to the post-feminist wasteland."
Some criticism was substantive. One commenter pointed out the wage gap; another said the piece glossed over the increased risks women faced from sex -- pregnancy and abortion are not without their very real dangers -- and the increasingly limited access to abortion, which is constantly under attack by conservative groups.
However a lot of the criticism ranged from the expected cries for abstinence ("Don't have sex then!") to the overblown or misinformed. Reuters' Ben Walsh, for instance, tweeted that Shrage was "pandering" to men's rights groups, a pretty hilarious charge considering her previous piece for the Times.
Basically, Shrage just seems ahead of the curve. One commenter stated that the only thing missing from her piece was that the debate belonged in an "ideal world." True, we don't live in an ideal world. But this was posted on a philosophy blog, and doesn't philosophy often deal in how things should be as well as how things are? Ideally. New Times caught up with Shrage via email. Here's what she had to say:
New Times: What prompted this essay?
Shrage: I'm co-authoring a book titled Philosophizing about Sex and we have a chapter on sex and responsibility. This chapter has sections on our moral (and legal) responsibilities to disclose information to our sexual partners about our disease status or risk, whether sex or pornography are addictive in ways that make us less able to control our behavior, whether we have a moral responsibility to help our partners achieve sexual fulfillment (especially if we expect sexual exclusivity), and what are our moral (and legal) responsibilities for an accidental pregnancy and for the fetus that is created.
Last semester I shared chapters of this book with my Philosophy of Love and Sex class, and the section on accidental pregnancy and men's responsibilities really got my students worked up, especially the men in my class. At first some students were hesitant to express how unfairly they think the current system treats men, but when I shared my own reservations about the lack of options [with regard to parenting that] men have now compared to women, the male students in my class opened up and vented their frustrations.
These men typically recognize that they share responsibility with their female partners for using contraception, but they feel that one mistake can involve them in 18 years of unwilling involvement with a former partner and the child she chooses to raise. I have known men in this situation, and some have managed to work out a relationship with a formerly unwanted child. But some have not, and feel that their lives have been hijacked by someone else's decisions, as well as policies that now overcorrect for the past injustices that women have faced. As a feminist philosopher who has for years worked on issues of reproductive justice for women, I feel it's important to speak out about reproductive injustices that men sometimes face.
Your piece seems a bit ahead of the curve. With the Hyde Amendment and relentless attacks on reproductive rights and abortion access by conservatives, where does "forced fatherhood" fit in the current debate?
Our social policies regarding sexual conduct are still fairly punitive in a variety of ways. For example, some sex-offender laws treat people who have engaged in non-violent sexual conduct (teenagers who consensually "sext" nude photos) as serious criminals and subject them to the same treatment as sexual predators. While we need to sensitize people to the potentially serious consequences of careless behavior, we need to be sure that punishments fit the crimes committed. Coerced legal paternity is another way that we overreact to irresponsible sexual behaviors of men. This policy rarely serves a public good, in that paternity establishment and child support orders are expensive to process and enforce, few children benefit, and there are better ways to invest public money to help minimize accidental pregnancies and support single mothers.
In the context of the aforementioned criticism, what would need to happen, policy-wise, for the disestablishment of paternity to be feasible and/or palatable?
The public needs to demand the review and reform of numerous state statutes and court guidelines for establishing paternity in disputed cases. Men, women, and children who have been harmed by the current policies need to speak out (I've had many emails in response to my article attesting to the lifelong turmoil and hardships these policies create.).
You write that when a man accidentally impregnates a woman in the United States, he has "few options." Are there other countries that you would describe as offering more options, or a more equitable arrangement?
This is a really good question, and I don't know the answer to it. Since policies in the U.S. have been shaped by the public's resentment of tax dollars going to public assistance programs that support single mothers, I would expect that countries where this is not the case would not coerce legal paternity to the same extent. How would you define "informed consent"?
To give informed consent, one needs to have a reasonable amount of understanding about the commitment they are making or action they are undertaking. This means, they need to understand the consequences, potential risks, obligations and benefits, and so on.
How do we balance gender injustice with consideration to freedom to parent/avoid parenting?
I think there are ways that society can support willing parents without forcing unwilling men into legal fatherhood, or single mothers into marriage. We especially need to invest in affordable and safe child-care centers and after-school programs for all working parents, and high quality, universally available pre-schools. Let's take the tax dollars we're spending to chase down men who play no role in the lives of their genetic offspring and use these funds to directly support children. Let's also make effective birth control for men (such as vasectomies) convenient and affordable.
Can men be victims of sexism?
Yes, in the sense that we sometimes judge men using gender stereotypes that are based on myths and prejudice. Not all men involved with accidental pregnancies are reckless seducers or irresponsible philanderers.
You talk about your male students, many of whom are minorities, at FIU and that often they feel their sexuality is being controlled. Can you expand on the implications of the sexual policing of minority men?
In our cultural discourses, there is widespread resentment of minorities and immigrants in regard to the use of our public assistance programs, often without regard to the facts about who uses and benefits from these programs. These unfounded resentments contribute to stigmatizing both minority women and men in regard to their roles as mothers and fathers.
Doesn't impinging on men's freedom to avoid fatherhood (for now at least) serve a common good?
I don't think the common good is served by the current system, in most cases forced paternity does not benefit society (e.g., by helping the children or mothers involved).
Where there is egregious irresponsibility, say, on the part of a man involved with numerous unplanned pregnancies, we could allow the women involved to sue for damages without making these men the legal fathers. Why create the legal fiction that these men are "fathers" in order to help women recover some of the costs of managing an unplanned pregnancy? The courts could offer these men the alternative of several years of income support to the mother or another form and period of community service, plus mandatory sex-ed classes... again, this would be in cases of repeat "offenders."
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