Thursday, March 16, 2006

On choosing to refuse parenthood

M. Yglesias comments on a Slate article (the latter, being by Will Saletan, is a thoroughly ignorable piece of piffle, so don't bother clicking his link):

Ah, yes, the time-honored dorm room debate if women can get abortions, why do men need to pay child support? has reached the big time in recent days. This doesn't strike me as an especially difficult question to answer. Insofar as a child is going to be born, that child is going to need to be supported. The resources for doing so need to come from somewhere. Obviously, many of those resources are going to wind up coming from his mother. But given the realities of the world, those resources are often going to be inadequate to the task. There are basically two additional sources of resources -- the child's father and the state. Current policy relies on a mix of the two.

Maybe a respectable case could be made for shifting the mix somewhat in the direction of the state, though one would want to see the details before signing on to this. I don't at all think a respectable case can be made for reducing the quantity of resources getting directed to children.

I had trouble sleeping last night, so I wrote a great deal about the subject, but then I woke up this morning and decided not to inflict the fullness of my ramblings on you all. So here's the executive summary of my response.

First, government's pretty good at collecting general tax revenue, and then mailing checks drawn on that fund to people who need them. On the other hand, it's pretty bad at micromanaging point-to-point transfer payments. Social Security supports widows and orphans via the former model, and it works pretty well, with very low overhead and broad public support. The current child support system uses the latter model, and it works terribly. As a purely utilitarian matter, this argues for making child support work more like Social Security, where society at large picks up the burden rather than non-custodial fathers.

Second, under present legal and social norms (outside of South Dakota, anyway), women possess an unconditional right to refuse parenthood after conception. There are roughly two justifications for this right: first, biological realities (the fetus is inside a woman's body, and does not constitute an independent human life); and second, the value of personal autonomy (a woman should not be forced to become a parent against her will). If you don't believe in the second justification, examine this NOW press release on empirical studies of why women choose to have abortions. The stated justifications are based largely not on the biological burden of pregnancy per se, but on the social, financial, legal, and moral burdens of parenthood. That burden's severe enough that it should not be imposed involuntarily. Therefore, it seems to me that people (both men and women) should ideally possess an unconditional right to refuse parenthood after conception. The means of exercising this right may be technological (abortion, for women) or legal (disavowal, for both men and women), but the option should exist.

Notice that I say "unconditional right". A woman's right to an abortion should not be conditional on whether she used contraception, or whether she talked to her partner about children before sex, or whether some judge thinks she's a slut. Women possess that right unconditionally, for good and obvious reasons. All the same reasons apply to men who wish to refuse parenthood. Advising men to talk to their partners and work out a sensible contraception policy, or live with the consequences, ignores the possibilities of carelessness, disagreement, miscommunication, confusion, accident, deceit, and all the manifold complexities that emerge in actual human affairs.

Of course, until society provides the hypothetical social safety net for all children, it's folly to destroy the current child support system. In some sense, therefore, there's not much point in talking about all this. But still, I think it's incredibly callous to dismiss the concern of men who don't want their only choices to be abstinence or potential fatherhood (Yglesias's post doesn't do this, but this attitude does appear in other things I've read).

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