Forced Fatherhood and Voluntary Responsibility

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Laurie Shrage is a well-respected philosopher who writes a lot about feminist issues. She wrote a piece for the NYT this week that seems to me to undermine one of the key feminist contentions found in many discussions of abortion. One of the major feminist arguments for abortion is that it gives to women something that men have always had because of biology. Men have been able to have as much sex as they want while taking no responsibility for any children they thereby produce, because women have to face the consequences by bearing the children, and men can simply leave. If we let men avoid the consequence of fatherhood, we should let women have as much consensual sex as they want and not have to be mothers if that happens to result.

What Shrage points out is that this is simply not so. In the United States, any man who tries to do what men in this argument are assumed to do will find it very difficult to avoid legal responsibility for the children he sires. Men don't have any way to avoid being legally responsible for their children the way women do, since they can't force someone to have an abortion. Assume that a couple engage in sex where each is equally responsible for the fact that they had sex and for any steps they took not to conceive. That may not always be so, but assume it is. If they do conceive, she can have an abortion, with or without his consent. What can he do to avoid fatherly responsibility? Pretty much nothing. And if she impregnates herself by obtaining a sperm sample from him against his will and then lies and says they had sex, he is still going to assume legal responsibility if she insists on pursuing that.

None of this requires denying that there are asymmetries in relations between men and women. It simply points out that n this respect women actually have easily available ways to avoid legal responsibility than men do. When you factor in adoption, I think the same thing occurs. She can choose to give birth and seek adoption. He can't. And there might be those who argue that this is right. Because of how women have been and still are treated differentially in ways that harm women, women should have more rights in this area.

But if Shrage is right that this differential is something we should not want for our society, I don't think it follows that we should give men an out the way we give women an out, which is what I think she's assuming. It might simply be that we should be more cautious at how easily we allow people not to take responsibility for their actions. Maybe we should assume more responsibility on both sides. Her argument strikes me as assuming a kind of absolute voluntarism about acquiring responsibilities. We can't be assumed to take on a responsibility unless we choose to. Our child support laws show that, as a society, we don't think that. And one can just as easily argue that we should rethink our abortion laws in light of that as you can seek to revise our child support laws to make them more fair. The absolute right to abortion assumed by many on the pro-choice side of the abortion dispute relies on Shrage's premise that we can't acquire responsibilities merely because of the situation we find ourselves in. And it seems to me that in many areas of life we do assume we can involuntarily assume responsibilities, such as

(a) when a child playing stickball accidentally breaks a window
(b) when a witness to a crime accrues the responsibility to report it and to testify in court because of it
(c) when someone who sees an assault take place and is in a position to do something about it takes on a moral responsibility to do what they can, taking into account that their right to their own safety might weaken that responsibility but surely wouldn't remove it altogether
(d) when someone leaves a child on my front porch, and I have some obligation to make sure it receives the care it needs
(e) [added a few hours after initial posting] when someone ends up with a child with severe disabilities that require the kind of care that few parents would have thought they were consenting to when choosing to become parents
(f) [also added a few hours after initial posting] when someone chooses to have a child in the usual case, not knowing remotely the kind of work and commitment is required in raising a child to adulthood, at least not with their first child

The absolute voluntarist view about acquiring responsibilities seems obviously wrong once you think about other kinds of cases. So why should we assume we should make men less responsible for the kids they conceive engaging in activity that they know can produce children? And why should the absolute right to abortion rest on such a premise when we don't hold to that premise any other time? There are other arguments for a right to abortion, but this seems to me to be one of the more common ones that I find among those familiar with the philosophical literature, going back to Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous 1971 paper. I think this is one of that paper's most important assumptions, and it amazes me that so many people accept the arguments of that paper without grappling with this highly controversial assumption.

2 Comments

Yes, assuming that "absolute volunteerism" is best is a highly controversial position, but it's not surprising that the author doesn't bother defending it here. She's not writing to those who disagree. She's writing to those who already agree but are, in her view, inconsistent with how they apply it. I think that expecting her to defend that view in everything she writes is unrealistic.

I'm not sure most people who defend absolute volunteerism really believe it, though.

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