Monday, September 15, 2008

Risk, Consent, Abortion, and Child Support

My latest FindLaw column elaborates on the question of whether consent to an amniocentesis -- which risks a spontaneous abortion -- is tantamount to consent to an abortion, if the pregnancy is lost. I conclude that it is not, but I raise the issue of whether the pro-life position -- that women consent to any resulting pregnancy when they have intercourse -- is perhaps inconsistent with that conclusion. In the process, I discuss a variety of examples in which we do or do not treat risk-taking as consent to foreseeable consequences, and I identify some of the factors that appear to distinguish the two sets of examples.

In this post, I want to take up the distinct question of whether it is unfair to demand child-support from biological fathers who did not choose to have a child but only to have intercourse and who may, in fact, have unsuccessfully encouraged their partners to terminate their pregnancies.

As I have written elsewhere, I do not think that a simple genetic connection is enough, alone, to trigger child-support obligations (e.g., if a man is compelled against his will to donate sperm, he should not be held liable to support the resulting offspring). And we routinely allow men to give up paternal obligations when they donating to a sperm bank (and even to earn money in the process). It does therefore seem that if we hold a man financially accountable for 18 years when his sexual liasons ultimately result in the birth of a child, we may be doing to him what those who would compel women to remain pregnant against their will wish to do to women. Is this fair?

I am conflicted about it. On the one hand, if a man is utterly uninterested in his offspring, a part of me wishes there were some way to say that he is not truly their father and therefore bears them no financial obligations. Some advocates within the father's rights movement have called this idea the right to a "financial abortion" (about which I wrote here). Yet another part of me feels that if a child has financial needs, it is not too much to ask that the person who helped give rise to those needs do his small part in satisfying them. No one, after all, is forcing the man actually to care for his children or to spend time with them against his will, never mind donating blood or a kidney if they should need it for their survival.

I do think there is a significant difference between compelling a woman to remain pregnant against her will and compelling a man (or a woman, for that matter) to contribute financially to a physically separate child. In the first case, the State has turned the woman into a reproductive slave for the term of her pregnancy. In the second, it has simply asked for the distribution of resulting financial costs to the most responsible parties. The man can be viewed as paying damages for his part in creating the child's needs, but a compulsory pregnancy would be more like ordering "specific performance" of particular, personal, and bodily-integrity-challenging duties.

Some will say, of course, that there is more to lose in the case of actual abortion than in the case of financial abortion -- even without a father's financial support, at least the child is alive. This is true, but it misses the point. If a child needs a kidney transplant to survive, then the stakes are at least as high as they are in the case of pregnancy. Yet, to my knowledge, we have no law that requires a father to donate a kidney to a child, even if the alternative is the child's death. Though he took risks that helped create the need for a kidney (or any other medical need that might call for a close relative's intervention), we draw the line at bodily integrity.

Posted by Sherry F. Colb

11 comments:

sobi said...

The reality that birth control is limited to females stems from their need to control pregnancy versus a male's former ability to escape responsibility. Had the obligations been equal during the design and testing of birth control, it would not be exclusive to females, and there would be no issue that males are suddenly involuntary parents.

They can't have it both ways. The idea that a male can have sexual intercourse and a legal protection from obligations resulting therein is merely a point on a continuum of a line drawn from abandoning responsibility to legal exemption from responsibility.

I do not see the cause for responsibility-free sex for males. They can, however, to their advantage, fight for birth control to reduce the risk of unwanted parenthood.

bendrix said...

I explained at the bottom of this page what I thought was a weakness in the sex \= consent argument, at least from the perspective of a pro-life position (PL). But if your sex-consent model is granted, I'm unclear about what rationale can be applied to deny a financial abortion right to fathers.

My understanding of your sex-consent model was that consent is a true/false value: either an activity implies consent or it does not imply consent. There is no gradation of consent. If that is accurate, how do you connect financial responsibility to a father in the absence of consent. Peculiarly, you concede that a compelled sperm-donor (CSD) has no liability, but having sex, although there is no consent to bear the physical or financial burdens of pregnancy for either participant, still bears that precise liability for willing male sex participants (MSPs) when mothers refuse the abortion or adoption option. You state another part of me feels that if a child has financial needs, it is not too much to ask that the person who helped give rise to those needs do his small part in satisfying them, but then why is a CSD treated differently than an MSP? Both helped give rise to a child's needs in the absence of consent.

Therefore, one of the following is probably true: the CSD also bears liability, the MSP has no liability, or a true/false model of consent is flawed.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you. Perhaps you are describing a quasi-consent, ie. a consent that has gradations. Maybe participation in sex implies a little bit of consent. Still, strangely the nature of this quasi-consent is such that it holds MSPs liable but not CSDs or pregnant women. What kind of consent is this? I'm sure a model can be devised, but it would complicated and maybe arbitrary. Here's my naive good-faith effort:

Let's say that sex implies a little consent, and let's assume that the amount of consent is equal between both parties. However much the consent is, the magnitude is not so much that it incurs on a woman the responsibility to carry a fetus to term. But, why are MSPs liable but not pregnant women? Maybe it's because abortion incurs special costs on the mother alone. So, even if both parties are equally liable, a man cannot force a woman to have an abortion because the choice for him is not the same as the choice for her. One additional problem, however, is the adoption option. Since mothers can give up their children for adoption after birth, and this option is not available to men, why must men be compelled into liability? While I think it's likely that on average, the emotional and psychological costs associated with giving a child up for adoption are higher for a mother than a father, it's unlikely to be universal. There are likely instances that a mother has given up a child for adoption in spite of a father's reluctance, and he bore a disproportionate amount of the emotional and psychological costs.

I think one can only resolve this apparent inconsistency by asserting that all things being equal, mothers intrinsically have more ownership over their children than fathers in the same way one investor may have a controlling interest in a company. Because a mother has a controlling interest, she can make the big decisions like keeping or giving up her assets (the kids) via transactions like adoption (or abortion for that matter if we're conceding an unequal distribution of responsibility), and the lesser co-investor--the father--has to go along with those decisions. So, ultimately men are disadvantaged because that is the nature of sex and consent in this model.

Maybe there is some other model of sex-consent that can work to reconcile the statements (1) CSDs bear no liability, (2) mothers may avoid liability via abortion or adoption, and (3) MSPs cannot choose to avoid liability. The objector will point out that one can create a model to fit any number of expectations. The question is why is that model better than the alternatives? Indeed, PL would have a field day with the model I described above. If one concedes that sex has some consent, PL totally agrees. That's what PL's been saying the whole time. The advantage for PL is that its model of consent is of the simpler, intuitive, true-false variety. It avoids any strange complicated model that would need to be devised to accord the paradoxical statements (1), (2), and (3) above. PL would charge that ascribing to sex some amount of consent that happens to be insufficient to prevent women from having abortions but just enough to deny men the opportunity to give up liability seems arbitrary and specious. PL's probably right on that one.

I don't mean to straw man your case here, Ms. Colb. I really can't fathom what kind of model of sex-consent can account for the positions you advocated without being susceptible to the challenges I described. Maybe it's possible to hold (1), (2) and (3), but I think it bears the burden of proof. I don't know why anyone would assume that those statements are all true. It seems much more tenable to just concede the financial abortion option to men if one wants to maintain the sex/=consent opinion. Such a concession effectively trades provision for some children in some cases in favor of justification for abortion + intuitiveness + integrity.

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