Are Feminists Really Pro-Choice?
By Alec Rawls © 1995/1998. (830 words) Originally published in The Stanford Review 10/12/95.

I could hardly believe my ears. Was this really the same woman friend who for years had been adamantly pro-choice? Where she used to insist that to force a woman to carry a child to term was an unconstitutional slavery, she now was now insisting that unintended pregnancy warranted a lifetime of slavery. Not only was one to have no right to terminate a pregnancy, but one was then to be forced to spend one's life either rearing the unwanted child or paying for it to be reared.

Being adamantly pro-choice myself, I struggled against the enormity of this switch. "Even if precautions were taken to avoid pregnancy in the first place?" I asked. "They obviously weren't good enough" bounced back the brick wall. "Even if adoption is possible?" I asked her. She was implacable. "Can anything relieve the obligations to support the child through adulthood, even though one had no choice about continuing the pregnancy in the first place?" "Absolutely nothing" she asserted with a deadly seriousness I have hardly heard in her voice before.

Shocking business. But you can get the exact same answers from almost any "pro-choice" woman. Just specify that you are talking about the law for men, and lifelong obligation is not just the feminist position, it is the law in every state of the union. Watch out guys. Do not be lulled in to thinking that your "liberal" girlfriend's attitudes towards sex make pre-marital sex riskless for you. Feminism is only interested in sex being as risk free as possible for women, and that means shifting as much of the risk as possible onto you.

Hand in hand with the drive to secure a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion, there has been a desperate insistence that whether the father wanted to get the mother pregnant or wanted her to keep the child is of no relevance to the extent of his obligations. His body, his labor, his hopes for family in the future, are all confiscated over the exact same unintended pregnancy for which our constitutional process has decided that women must not be forced to sacrifice anything.

The newspapers publish a steady drumbeat of reports deploring the high percentage of "deadbeat dads" and insisting that we crack down. But the numbers show that men who had children within marriage, men who chose to become fathers, have extremely high compliance rates. They continue to support their children and their ex-wives, without the benefit of these women's love or labor. The so-called "deadbeats" are almost entirely men who fathered children out of wedlock, and their official numbers are inflated by the fact that every welfare mother is required to list a father who automatically goes into the statistics as a deadbeat.

Of course attacking "deadbeat dads" is a political steamroller. Who can defend them when the label "deadbeat" begs the question of whether the obligations they face are just. But the only way to substantially improve the rates of compliance is to go after the only group that has low rates of compliance, and so the political steamroller becomes a war to confiscate the livelihoods of men who never consented to become fathers and force them to support women who did have a choice and chose to have children out of wedlock.

To get both justice and effective incentives it is necessary to attach obligations to choice, or consent. Throughout the world consent to responsibility for each other's choices comes in the form of wedding vows. Thus the obvious resolution is to let women to be free to choose in any case, but have the support that fathers are obligated to provide fall sharply for children born outside of marriage. This would provide the right incentives for women to choose responsibly and bear children within marriage or not at all.

The feminists want choice without responsibility. They want irresponsible behavior to be supported the same as responsible behavior. That is unfair to those who are being forced to provide support and it provides the wrong incentives for women, encouraging irresponsible childbearing.

The only real question is how much less than a married father's parental obligation an unmarried father should be forced to bear. If he bears no obligation that gives him no external incentive to do his part to avoid irresponsible reproduction. Half might be the best compromise for an already compromised situation, leaving strong incentives for both would be fathers and mothers not to conceive or bear children outside of marriage.

Half of a divorced father's child support payments is still a tremendous obligation, considering that, for women, most people judge it a tyrannical wrong to impose any obligation to become a parent. But there is a baby involved, whose mother has already proven herself irresponsible by having a child out of wedlock. The strength of that need calls for splitting the incentive equally between the man and the woman, even though the woman is the one who ultimately has the choice.

(Alec Rawls is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics.)



A special case is when an minor female has a child by an adult male she is not married to (the age of consent is typically below the age of majority). In this case (whether or not the father is prosecuted for statutory rape) the father should have to bear the same full obligation to the child that a married father does, only the transition has to be graduated. If the male just turned eighteen and the girl will turn eighteen shortly then there isn't much grounds for treating this different than if they were the same age. Similarly if both are about sixteen, or or some other minor age. A ballpark sliding scale might say that if the parents are not married, and the girl is a minor, then if they are the same age (the boy is zero to not quite one year older) the boy assumes one half of a married father's obligation. If the boy is one to two (a day less than two) years older, he assumes 5/8 of a married father's obligation. If he is two to three years older, he assumes 3/4 of a married father's obligation. If he is three to four years older he assumes 7/8 of a married father's obligation. If he is four or more years older (and the girl was a minor when she got pregnant) he assumes the full amount of a married father's obligations. Similarly if the girl is older. If she is older by more than a year she bears 5/8 of the obligation, by more than two years she bears 3/4, etcetera.

Next article in Utilitarianism volume of Moral Science: Socialized Medicine Still Looms

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