The Father's Role In The Abortion Decision

The Abortion Issue
Constitutional Thoughts
Fathers' Rights
Minors and Abortion

(updated 8/31/02)

The role of the father in raising children continues to be a major area of debate in our society, often because he does not have a large enough role. Others question the old fashioned "wait until your father comes home" division of labor between parents, suggesting it is part of the lack of a good emotional connection between father and child. This lack of connection shows its ugly head most starkly in divorce cases, where we have the stereotypical deadbeat dad, as well as similar trouble in the case of dads who were never married to the child's mother. One of the most troubling societal problems is the father who does not feel enough responsibility to provide for his child or children, as shown by the whole stereotypical single mother on welfare, especially if she is a teenager or not much older without much means to support the child. Nonetheless, it is agreed that a father should have a greater role in the emotional and financial support of his children, the problem being confusion on what this entails or not enough willingness to provide it.

The same sense of clarity is not available in the choice to have an abortion. A guy has part of the responsibility to worry about contraception and disease during sex, a responsibility too many still ignore, plus the responsibility to care for a child in various ways once s/he is born. Let it be noted that often the woman also does not do very well in meeting these responsibilities, which is not as much a value judgment on my part, but a reminder both sexes are not perfect ... nor do we expect them to be. Anyhow, things get a bit more complicated when we face the decision of the mother to have or not have a child.

Let it be noted up-front it is not just her child, it is their child. Just as clearly as the fact that the mother will have special burdens and emotional attachments to the child (part of the reason her voice in the decision is surely stronger of the two), she is not the only one. Furthermore, arguing that the special burdens of the mother, as well as the realization she is likely to have more responsibility and connection to the child after childbirth, should have the final say does not end matters. My argument here is that the father also has a role, a role some would rather ignore as much as some would want to expand (via forced notification of abortion laws, consent, or even leaving the choice up to the "head" of the family, i.e., the father).

The father has an emotional and genetic link to the child, the latter often very important in how a child turns out, even when the father is not on the scene (looks, personalities, skills, etc., are tied largely to genes, as much if not more than environmental factors). The emotional connection surely is not equal to the person who carries a child to term, gives birth, perhaps breast feeds, and usually spends the most time caring for the child. Nonetheless, it surely is there, since fatherhood is more than a spreading of one's genes or family line. Society as a whole will lose out, if we belittle this special tie between father and child in the name of recognizing the special link between mother and child. This special link is partly why courts have said the mothers cannot use frozen sperm or fertilized eggs against the will of the father; a man cannot be forced to be a father in this way, often in cases where some other man will be a primary care giver. Furthermore, this special bond between father and child makes it seriously wrong for women to trick their mates and have a child when he has made it clear he is hesitant or is against the idea. This is not a hypothetical thing, since it has clearly occurred in many cases, although such forced fatherhood is bound to cause problems between father and child.

The emotional and genetic link of the father is but one way he is intimately tied to the possibility of fatherhood against his will. Just as some women have abortions for any number of reasons tied into them not feeling it is the right time to have a child, such reasons quite often can also apply to men. For instance, if a child is severely disabled, the mother alone is not the only one with the responsibility to care for him/her. Furthermore, if there are economic factors involved, how a child will affect the male half of the couple also is a factor. After all, a serious problem that is trouble for a father will clearly negatively affect the family at large. As with the emotional and genetic connection the child has to both parents, the decision to have an abortion should take in account both the mother and the father. This is no less true if we understand the mother to have a bigger stake in the deal, any less than a person might only be partly liable for an accident or partly deserving of a windfall.

Now, it will be argued by some that we ultimately are concerned with the body of the woman, which gives her final say. This is exactly right, but one can justly question the moral choices of a woman (or teen) that does not involve the interests of the father in family decisions that obviously are of special concern to both of them. Why should a father have the responsibility as a parent, if he does not have some power or at least have his interests respected in decisions that affect such a role? This power does not rise to the level of forcing a woman to give up control of her body, but it clearly should at least mean he has a role in the decision making. After all, the choice whether or not to have a child often is far from easy, and the roles of both parents are important in making the final determination. Just because the choice is ultimately in the hands of the mother because it's her body and she of the two has more to gain/lose does not mean she should ignore the needs of the father. She might have the power to so (even not to notify him, since forcing her to places her at the mercy of the state when she knows such a notification might cause her harm), but as with so many other things in life, this does not make it right.

The fact that the mother has the ultimate choice to make, one she is usually most skilled to make, does not mean her voice is the only one in the equation. This was a flaw in "The Abortion Myth: Feminism, Morality, and The Hard Choices Women Make" by Leslie Cannold, an otherwise excellent book. Cannold ignores a bit too much in my eyes that others can offer insight to the mother, as well as having some moral say in the decision, the father being uniquely powerful in this regard. Nonetheless, the other children in the family, others who are affected by the decision to have a child (grandparents who might have a major responsibility in raising him/her?), and even society itself in some sense also is affected in various ways.

Others also can add insight to the mother, who is not always totally skilled in making a fully informed and rational decision (especially, teen mothers), though this could apply to parents (and society) in general. Respecting these other voices does not mean laws that force the mother to involve particular people in the decision are good policy (forced involvement is often either unnecessary or liable to be counterproductive or even dangerous, especially if minors or an abusive parent(s)/spouse is involved*), but it does mean other voices have something to add and needs and connections to the potential child that should be respected. The father is uniquely part of these other voices, and I feel he has a clear moral right and responsibility to be included in all areas of raising children, including the choice whether or not have them.

* Case law has held that the state can pass a law that requires a or both parents can be notified or be required to give consent before their minor child has an abortion. Nonetheless, the minor can go to a judge to request a "bypass," which usually is given in most states. This bypass procedure is obviously not that easy, especially for the child from a troubled home, even those who have a supportive parent or relative, or is clearly mature enough to make their own decision in an area that will affect them for the rest of their lives. For those in the latter category, the need and justice of a judicial bypass requirement is also quite suspect. On the other hand, adult women legally need not even to notify her husband, since this would require the woman who has a good reason not to do so trust the state to protect her. As noted in Planned Parenthood v Casey, not only does she have special burdens the father does not, many legitimately fear the state will not protect her, or are just too afraid to tell for some reason they are in trouble.

Notification Of Fatherhood

Florida recently passed a law requiring mothers to publish their sexual history in papers in which possible fathers might read it when the father is unknown. A court decision has exempted those who have been raped, but minors have not been addressed, though practice at large has been challenged, and is currently in the courts. It is clearly in the spirit of this essay to require as a moral or ideal matter for the mother to determine, if possible, who the father of her child is. After all, legally, the father has rights (including constitutional) that grow from parenthood, rights that are valueless if his fatherhood is not known. Furthermore, just requiring fathers (via private registeries and the like) to make the effort is not always feasible. Fathers should not lose their rights just because the mother moves away or keeps the pregnancy hidden.

This is important, since some do, either because they feel the father is unfit, or rather not worry about forming a connection with someone they know little about. Many women have chosen to be single mothers, and not all by artificial insemination or by the consent of the male who provided the means for them to do so. This is not right ... fathers are not just sperm suppliers; they have a real interest, and an important one, to know who their children are. Society in general does as well in that if possible, two parents are often better than one. Therefore, the reason for the law is valid, and worthwhile. Nonetheless, the means is suspect.

As with notification and consent laws in matters of abortion, it must accepted that the woman has the greater burden to bear, and forcing the issue by law is troubling. Furthermore, if the law says you cannot force a pregnant woman to notify a father before an abortion, why is such a public (abortion notification means only the father would be contacted, not everyone who reads the paper) means to notify a father of a birth not a greater violation of privacy? It might also be dangerous, even in the mind of the pro-life movement (abortion, no notification, birth, forced notification of various communities). Why not just contact the potential fathers without the perhaps pointless publication requirement (many do not read such required legal notifications anyway)? This too might be seen as a violation of privacy, and women can lie, but I'm inclined to accept it because fathers do have a legal right over there child. Mothers do not have a right to hide children from their fathers without proof of harm, which is quite different from the right to control one's body in matters of abortion. The Florida policy however is just a bit much.