Column

Respect a Man’s Choice, Too

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

In Kai Ma’s recent AlterNet column "The Difference Between a Womb and a Wallet" (7/26/06) she applauds a U.S. District Court judge’s quick, contemptuous dismissal of Matt Dubay’s "Roe v. Wade for Men" lawsuit. Dubay sought to wipe out the child support payments he is obligated to make to an ex-girlfriend who, he says, used a fallacious claim of infertility to deceive him into getting her pregnant.

In opposing "Choice for Men," Ma asserts that a "woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy is not the equivalent of a man’s choice to financially opt out of fatherhood." She cites the pain and discomfort of pregnancy, and the way motherhood "may limit our mobility or careers." These problems are very real; however, so are the problems created when men are saddled with child support obligations.

According to an estimate in Men’s Health magazine, 100,000 men each year are jailed for alleged nonpayment of child support. Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement data reveal that 70% of those behind on payments earn poverty level wages. The "Most Wanted Deadbeat Dad" lists put out by most states are used both for police actions and to hunt and shame "deadbeats" through newspaper ads and publicity campaigns. These lists are largely comprised of uneducated African-American and Latino men with occupation descriptions like "laborer," "maintenance man" and "roofer."

Ma dismisses the burden of child support as being "a few hundred dollars a month." However, in California, AlterNet’s home state, a noncustodial father of two earning a modest $3,800 a month in net income pays $1,300 a month in child support. The money–almost $300,000 over 18 years–is tax-free to the custodial mother. One can reasonably debate whether this sum is appropriate or excessive. One cannot reasonably dismiss it as being insignificant.

Ma portrays children as a mother’s albatross, forgetting that parenting is also the greatest joy a person can experience in life. Yes, in single mother homes the mother bears the burden of most of the childrearing, but the mothers also experience the lion’s share of the joys and benefits of having children. Noncustodial fathers are not so fortunate–they’re usually permitted only a few days a month to spend with their kids. Once mom finds a new man, they’re often pushed out entirely in favor of the child’s "new dad."

Ma condemns men who "lie, deceive, break their promises, or pull a 180…who agree to marry but don’t," and laments that "millions of women" have been "trapped into single motherhood for life with, often, next to no recourse." Yet according to a randomized study of 46,000 divorce cases published in the American Law and Economics Review, two-thirds of all divorces involving couples with children are initiated by mothers, not fathers, and in only 6% of cases did the women claim to be divorcing cruel or abusive husbands.

The out-of-wedlock birth rate in the United States hovers around 33%–given the wide variety of contraceptive and reproductive choices women enjoy, this can hardly be blamed primarily on men. Yes, in some of these cases the mother and father shared a relationship which the mother (and the father) may have expected would become a marriage. Yet these relationships fail for many reasons besides male perfidy. These include: youth; economic pressure and the lack of living wage jobs (how many couples fight over money?); and the mothers’ post-partum depression and mood-swings. It’s doubtful that many men really wake up in the morning and say to themselves "my child loves me and needs me, my girlfriend loves me and needs me–I’m outta here."

Ma says men "shouldn’t be able to choose to abandon that child in the lurch." Yet 1.5 million American women legally walk away from motherhood every year through adoption, abortion or abandonment. In over 40 states mothers can completely opt out of motherhood by returning unwanted babies to the hospital shortly after birth. If men like Dubay are deadbeats and deserters, what are these women?

Whenever a child is born outside of the context of a loving, two-parent family, there are no good solutions. Ma overstates her case, but she is correct that "Choice for Men" is a flawed solution. However, the current regime, which provides women with a variety of choices and men with none, is also flawed.

Dubay’s conduct is not particularly admirable, and he’s certainly not a candidate for father of the year; however, he does have a point. Over the past four decades women’s advocates have successfully made the case that it is wrong to force a pregnancy on an unwilling mother. Despite the backlash against Dubay, hopefully his lawsuit will result in a greater societal awareness that it is also wrong to force a pregnancy on an unwilling father.