Should Men Be Able to Opt Out of Fatherhood?

Over the weekend, Anna March wrote for Salon in favor of ending mandatory child support, in order to make fatherhood “a man’s choice.”

The case in favor of male reproductive rights isn’t new: March’s argument picks up where Florida International University philosophy and gender studies professor Laurie Shrage left off in “Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?”, Shrage’s June New York Times editorial. Shrage argued that if one believes that motherhood should be voluntary, and women shouldn’t be penalized for sexual activity by limiting the availability of birth control, abortion, adoption, and safe haven laws, then it’s only fair to extend the same rights to men.

March agrees, and points to a decade-and-a-half-long tradition of feminists arguing for the abolition of the current child support system. Referring to Cathy Young’s 2000 Salon article, “A Man’s Right to Choose,” she explains: “While there are alternatives to parental responsibility for women, for men, ‘in the eyes of the law, it seems that virtually no circumstances, however bizarre or outrageous, can mitigate the biological father’s liability for child support.’” Basing her argument on the principle that, for both men and women, consenting to sex is not the same as consenting to become a parent, March asserts: “I don’t believe that we will ever have true reproductive autonomy until men are offered the option, as women are, to opt out.”

March’s argument is clumsy not only because it assumes women’s universal access to abortions is unchallenged, but also because it overlooks the fact that women can’t necessarily opt out of the financial burden imposed by an unwanted pregnancy. She undermines her own argument when she writes:

It has always confused me that those who are in favor of holding men financially responsible for a child that results from a pregnancy do not attempt to hold men legally responsible for sharing the cost of abortion with a woman who decides to terminate her pregnancy. I think men have a right to opt out of both, but if one argues that men are responsible for the outcome of a pregnancy they created, and abortion is the outcome, why don’t we pursue men for abortion costs? Especially when, according to the National Network of Abortion Funds, more than 200,000 women a year in the U.S seek assistance with paying for their abortions. The Network also points out that 4,000 women a year in the U.S. are denied abortions because they pass the legal gestational limit while trying to raise the funds. Why do we put men on the “hook” for children but not on the ‘hook’ for abortions?

March asks “why don’t we pursue men for abortion costs?” rhetorically, but really: Why don’t we? She repeatedly argues in favor of relieving men of the financial burden of fatherhood with statements like, “Women can opt out now — men should be able to as well.” But for the many women in the U.S. for whom abortion remains financially inaccessible, opting out of motherhood and its accompanying costs is still not an option. Though March does not entirely overlook current obstacles to abortion, she argues that “lack of access to abortion doesn’t mean we should be unfair to men.” Yet while women’s right to abortion remains under threat in much of the country, it’s naive to act as if opting out of parenthood is simply a question of fairness. As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote in Salon earlier this year, “when women are pregnant with a baby they didn’t sign up for and they can’t access abortion, they still have to figure it out.”

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Should Men Be Able to Opt Out of Fatherhood?