Should Child Support Be Optional for Men?

A men’s rights group caused a stir a while ago by filing a lawsuitin which it alleged that men were being discriminated against by the system of collecting child support in this country. Their argument is this: women who are pregnant (whether married or not) get to choose whether to carry the fetus to term. And even if they choose to carry it to term, they can choose to give the baby up for adoption. Because men don’t have the same rights, they are being denied equal protection under the law.

The men are right. The law doesn’t treat men and women alike. Neither does the reproductive process.

It is nature’s decision, not the law’s, to have the fetus reside in the body of the mother and not the father while it matures and develops. It’s nature’s decision, not the law’s, (one that I and most men heartily applaud, by the way) that women and not men should have the peculiar and comely equipment to provide crucial nourishment to the newborn child as it greets the world. It’s nature’s decision, not the law’s, that men are able to continue their hunter/gatherer/seller/worker activities straight through the pregnancy, birth, and early life of the child and that women are not. Yes, I know that women spend less time away from work for pregnancy and childbirth, but the fact is that our biology is different.

And let’s make sure we understand who gets to decide what. Yes, women in most states (not all, but most) get to decide whether to have an abortion during the early stages of their pregnancy. But no, women don’t get to decide whether to place a child up for adoption. As any couple trying to adopt a child can tell you, it takes the consent of both parents for adoption to occur. And even after they have both consented, each of them has a right for a few days to change his or her mind.

Yes, if the mother decides to have a child, the father has no right to decide whether to provide support to the child. But then neither does the mother. If either parent fails to fulfill his duty toward the child, the state has an interest in protecting the child.

And that brings us to the argument I find most compelling. Assume for argument that the present system of calculating and collecting child support is unfair to men. The law (and after reflection, I) respond to this with an empathetic and tender shrug of the shoulders. The reason is that it’s okay for the system to be unfair to men, just like it’s okay for it to be unfair to women. The system isn’t about fairness between the mother and the father. It’s about taking care of the child.

A common argument of men asked to pay child support is that they didn’t want to have a child. In some cases, including the one that’s making national news as I write this, the father argues that the mother assured him there was “no way” she could get pregnant.

But be honest, who had more control over this pregnancy, the father, or the child? If the father wanted to make sure he didn’t conceive a child:

  • He could have avoided all sexual contact with women. There’s no law that says he had to engage in sexualized behavior; that was his decision.
  • He could have confined his attention to women he knew really well. There’s no law that says he had to engage in sexualized activity with people he didn’t know; that was his decision.
  • He could have avoided sexual intercourse. There’s no law that says petting must proceed to coitus; that was his decision.
  • He could have used a condom. There’s no law that says sex means unprotected sex; that was his decision.

How many of those decisions did the child get to make?

So the law intrudes to protect the rights of the child against both the mother and the father. Is it unfair? Perhaps. Is it unfair to adults who have power and get to make decisions rather than unfair to children who don’t? Yes.

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