A feminist argument against child support

This article was nominated for Partisans’ Best of Life and Culture 2011. Results have been announced on the nomination page.

You’ve probably seen an affable character around town, anywhere from hardware store commercials to Hollywood movies. His name is Wholesome Dad. He shares profound life lessons with his son on fishing trips, teaches his dangerously hapless teens how to drive, and watches his kids excel at various sporting events.

Tom Booth

Father and son fishing at the beach.

On/Trac

Cathy Young: A man’s right to choose

Off/Trac

Fathers For Life: The fathers' rights movement

This is one of the more benign masculine archetypes out there, but it is an archetype nonetheless. Real-life family issues are rarely so straightforward. For families to thrive, parenthood must be a choice, not an obligation. Therefore, men should not be held financially liable for unplanned pregnancies where birth control is accessible.

When informed of a partner’s pregnancy, a man should get a single, time-sensitive opportunity to choose fatherhood. By declining, he would assume the legal status of a sperm donor. By accepting, he would be held accountable for the shared responsibility of caring for the child both emotionally and financially. Ideally, this policy would exist alongside strong state-funded subsidies for families in poverty.

Isn’t that anti-woman?

Women already sacrifice more than men in every aspect of child-rearing. The difference in physical labour is obvious, and even women working full-time contribute more hours of unpaid work than their male partners. Financially, moms sacrifice more by foregoing career opportunities in a job market that has not responded to modern ideals of work-life balance. Why in the world, a women’s rights advocate might ask, should we ask even less of men?

Fathers should indeed contribute equally, but only after having made a sincere choice to become a parent in the first place. In countries with access to effective birth control and safe abortion, choosing a sexual encounter becomes a separate issue from choosing to have a child. That distinction should be reflected in the law by getting rid of paternity suits. Men have neither the right to control women’s reproduction nor the responsibility for their reproductive choices.

If he won't support the kids, who will?

Since men would no longer be required to bear financial responsibility for the children they father, wouldn’t single mothers and their children be left in poverty?

It’s not quite that simple. Without the assurance of child support, women and girls will be more likely to terminate unplanned pregnancies. Postponing motherhood then enables them to increase their own earnings and prevent or escape poverty (as well as dependence upon men). However, abortion alone is not a sufficient solution, especially for low-income women who strongly believe in carrying fetuses to term.

Feminists and race-equality activists would point out that an increased incentive to abort disproportionately affects marginalized women, in effect restricting their reproductive choices by making it more difficult to raise a wanted child. Thus, voluntary fatherhood could be said to discriminate against poor women even where there is access to contraception and abortion.

The specter of child poverty and restricted reproductive choices for marginalized women is a serious concern — too serious to be left to the vagaries of unreliable dads earning unreliable incomes. Child support should still exist for low-income families, but ultimately it should be underwritten by the state.

Subsidies should also apply where there is a parent liable to pay support, but he is missing, in jail, violent, or simply unable to pay. In some jurisdictions this is already the case, but in others the system places undue burdens on the primary caregiver (usually the mother) to track down evasive payers.

Poor parents are less able to pursue expensive litigation to resolve child support disputes or enforce payment, so they would benefit from a simplified process of state support for children. They are also more likely than higher-income parents to spend all child support money as it is intended: on their child’s needs. As for fiscal carelessness, some of the costs of state-funded child support can be offset by the reduced burden on the court system.

Children should be considered eligible for a certain minimum standard of living as a right, not a consequence of their parents’ income, employment status, or ability to navigate labyrinthine court procedures. Welfare systems should be robust enough to prevent child poverty whether one or two parents are involved.

Disappearing dads?

Some fathers’ rights activists are hostile towards the female independence promoted by such policies, as reducing the importance of paternity undermines their feelings of male necessity and belonging. Social conservatives would criticize this approach as anti-family.

But family values are formed by bonds of love and integrity, not martini-fueled midnight accidents. It is unfortunate that ovaries can’t tell if the genetic material swimming their way is coming from a bedpost-notching pickup artist or a committed partner aspiring to be a Wholesome Dad.

For thousands of years societies have developed an array of customs to manage this biological fact in coordination with food and wealth production, politics, and ethics. In modern societies with safe birth control, these customs need not be the customs of the past. That said, those who follow the old traditions would still be free to act according to their principles and take ownership of those midnight accidents (or avoid them in the first place).

Feminists and misogynists alike may oppose this proposal, but before writing it off they should watch MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” as a reminder of the degree of incompetence we’re dealing with here. Could the state be a worse dad than some of these dudes?

This approach asks that we be realistic about the contributions an irresponsible reprobate or fifteen-year old kid can make as a father so that pregnant girls and women can make informed choices. It asks us to clear the fog of sentimentality that tends to obscure rational policy discussions on family issues, to acknowledge that families come in many forms, and to respond compassionately to the harsh realities that many children face.

Voluntary fatherhood — combined with voluntary motherhood via contraception and abortion, as well as an ensured minimum standard of living for children — is a better formula for happy and healthy families.