On Pro-Choice Deadbeat Dads

Note: This post was inspired by some recent media attention that has been given to  a Latter-day Saint author for a book in which she talks about how the abortion debate should recenter on “ejaculating responsibly.” I haven’t read the book and therefore don’t have a right to critique its particulars, but here I’m addressing a general argument that one often hears that may or may not apply to her book. 

In their ethnographies Promises I Can Keep and Doing the Best I Can, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas interviewed young, unwed mothers (and later, the fathers of their children) in low-income settings, in part to see why they chose to get pregnant or, if they didn’t, what the processes were that led up to them carrying and having a child out of wedlock. It’s an incredibly moving work about the power and pathos of motherhood that is highly recommended.

During the interviews with what can largely be described as deadbeat fathers, when the issue of abortion came up many of the fathers exhibited very pro-choice views. However, the authors pointed out a not-so-silver lining to this belief: by believing in the woman’s right to choose they believe it logically exempted them from the fiscal or emotional consequences of that choice, since it was, in the end, 100% her decision, and that the real decision, that he was not involved in at all, came after conception.

The thing is, their logic is pretty airtight. If the fetus has no more fundamental significance than any other body part; if its removal is the moral equivalent of removing a kidney stone, then the fathers are 100% off the hook ethically and morally if she decides to carry it to term. If I did something to cause you to have a kidney stone, I would have some obligation to help you remove it, but if for some reason you decided to keep it in after I provided the resources and help to get it removed, then that’s on you.

I, of course do not believe this, but to do that requires recognizing that the act of creating a fetus has more moral significance, so that option is only available to people who are at least somewhere on the pro-life continuum. For others who are on the mainstream pro-choice left that refuses to articulate any more moral significance to removing a fetus than removing a kidney stone, the sword cuts both ways, liberating women to make their own choices over that procedure, but also liberating men from having to deal with the consequences of what is essentially her choice.

In that sense the Church’s insistence that men pay child support and help provide for their offspring is a logical corollary of its anti-abortion views. As, in most cases, destroying that child in the womb is a sin, the choice really came in the act of conception, and as somebody who was involved in that behavior, the father is also responsible for its attendant consequences. 


And yes, I know that the vast majority of typical people who hold pro-choice views lie somewhere in between the extremes, but here I’m specifically addressing the establishment left on this issue. (e.g. “Shout your abortion,” videotaping abortions while smiling, and removing the “rare” in “safe, legal, and rare” motto), so I’m going to preemptively ask you to spare me the gaslighting that nobody actually believes that! Because influential people do believe that removing a fetus is the moral equivalent of removing a kidney stone, and they are the ones I’m specifically addressing here. 

10 comments for “On Pro-Choice Deadbeat Dads

  1. Hmmm…. It seems to me that under this logic the deadbeat lovers are skipping the step where they check with the woman before they ejaculate to make sure that she actually agrees that a fetus is just removable tissue. That a woman has a choice doesn’t mean that she is automatically going to get an abortion. The key here is the word ‘choice.’

    And the problem with listening to deadbeats is that they are just looking for excuses anyway…

  2. You speak of the Church’s “anti-abortion views,” but the Church, by is own declaration, does not have a position on abortion legislation. Rather, the Church wisely teaches and counsels its members to avoid abortion except in certain circumstances, but leaves the decision in the hands of the woman.

  3. “. . .the abortion debate should recenter on ‘ejaculating responsibly.'”

    Will and Ariel Durant:

    “A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume both the individual and the group.”

    I don’t think that focusing on that one “responsibility” will be enough to channel the “river of fire.” We need to have strong tethers restraining us even before we encounter whatever layers of protection there might be.

  4. @Lehcarjt :
    That’s an interesting addition to the thought experiment: if the man believes the fetus is a hangnail, but the woman believes that the fetus is an unborn child, what obligations does the man have towards his unborn child? I’m not sure ethically, although I’m sure in practice, as you point out, many men would take that to mean that they’re off the hook.

    Yes, here I’m speaking about “anti-abortion” more generally, and not necessarily politically, although I’ll gently push back on a detail in your response. As you correctly say, it “does not have a position on abortion legislation,” but that it also “leaves the decision in the hands of the woman.” The second part is essentially a pro-choice position, and when the Church says it doesn’t have a position that means it doesn’t have a position–including the extent to which the decision should be in the hands of the woman.

    “I don’t think that focusing on that one “responsibility” will be enough to channel the “river of fire.” We need to have strong tethers restraining us even before we encounter whatever layers of protection there might be.”

    Agreed. That’s one reason why I think “you might get somebody/get pregnant” as a response to the question of “why not have prematiral sex?” Is pretty weak because, well, there are ways to have premarital sex and not get pregnant, so we might as well talk about why we shouildn’t have premarital sex per se.

  5. The “river of fire” comparison was part of the basis for the old practice of chaperoning premarital interactions. In some societies, chaperoning might be taken too far, but still, chaperoning might be a necessary part of the restraints if one really believes in banking the “river of fire.” Or, in other words, perhaps we simply cannot abandon chaperoning with any expectation of reducing premarital interactions.

    But in our modern society, it seems old-fashioned or even perverse to advocate for chaperoning. From a big picture view, legal abortion is seen as necessary and appropriate in light of our society’s abandonment of chaperoning.

  6. ji: “From a big picture view, legal abortion is seen as necessary and appropriate in light of our society’s abandonment of chaperoning.”

    A terrifyingly true statement, ji. And utterly sad.

    Out with the old; in with the new.

  7. The logic has some surface plausibility, and it’s not surprising deadbeat dads would find it persuasive. But it’s hardly airtight. Lehcarjt has suggested one counterargument; let me suggest another.

    A father has an obligation to his children, regardless of any obligation he may or may not have to their mother(s). Children are not responsible for the circumstances of their birth or the choices of their parents, so neither can affect the obligations owed them in any way. A father may wish that his children had never been born–even been prepared to make it so had it been solely up to him–but that is completely irrelevant to the obligations he owes them.

    Note that this argument does not depend on one’s position on abortion. It could be accepted just as easily by someone who believes abortion is a minor medical procedure as by someone who believes it is a sin like unto murder.

  8. @ RLD: Before I hit send in the OP I thought up another thought experiment, similar to the classic “famous violinist” thought experiment (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Defense_of_Abortion) that I think responds to the idea that you have a per se obligation to your offspring even if your decision wasn’t what willed them into existence.

    Let’s say I’m a famous celebrity in the future, and a woman wants to have my child, so she steals some of my sperm from a speak bank or DNA from a restaurant glass and uses it to create a child that is genetically mine (the hypothetical isn’t that crazy https://nypost.com/2016/10/12/sources-back-derrick-rose-nba-teaches-condom-disposal/amp/; according to some sources rookie NBA players are told to flush their used condoms.)

    She comes to me later and demands child support payments even though I was in no way actively involved in the creation of the child. Do I have an obligation purely by dint of my paternity?

    I actually think there are some inalienable rights vis-a-vis a genetic parent. For example, I believe that children have the right to know who their genetic parents are (because yes, Virginia, everybody has a mother and a father). I *believe* this is actually the policy in the UK now, but there’s significant pushback because it eviscerates the sperm bank system. However, I suspect I’m in a small minority here, and besides I’d hold that the inalienable rights stemming from such genetic relationships are fairly limited compared to what would be expected from a pro-life, accidental conception.

    All that is to say that from a purely the-fetus-is-like-any-other-body-part framework, an NBA player wouldn’t owe a woman financial support for having his child any more than he would if she rummaged through the garbage can and got his sperm from a used condom.

  9. That’s an interesting thought experiment, Stephen C, and my moral intuition agrees with you that this hypothetical celebrity of the future does not have the normal obligations of a father. Let me see if my rational mind can explain why…

    It’s certainly not because he didn’t intentionally choose to create a child. Otherwise, a large fraction of fathers (including many happily married ones) would be off the hook. However, he didn’t even choose to participate in sexual activity that had some probability of creating a child. Here’s where all the deadbeat dads say “But I didn’t choose to participate in sexual activity that had some probability of creating a child–I thought she’d get an abortion if she got pregnant!” Sorry, but it turns out abortion has a failure rate just like every other form of birth control, and fathers are responsible in the event of a failure.

    I’m also with you that the main argument against premarital sex can’t be “you might get somebody/get pregnant” but it is always lurking in the background.

    Of course there’s a far more common scenario where a pregnancy can occur despite one of the parents not choosing to participate in sexual activity that has some probability of creating a child: rape. And that’s one of the scenarios where the Church says abortion could be appropriate. I’m not ready to extend that exception to this thought experiment, but it’s something to consider.

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