Thursday, June 16, 2011

Father's Rights (and Responsibilities)

These are my reflections on what I think laws should be, not what they may actually be.

Everyone knows my position on abortion: It's entirely up to the pregnant, affected woman whether or not to continue a pregnancy which solely impacts her biologically, physically, and hormonally. A man should have no say in whether or not a woman he has impregnated carries to term.

This position must be coupled with the following, or it is fundamentally unfair to men. While a man has no say in whether or not a woman he has impregnated carries to term, he should absolutely have a say in whether or not he wants to be a father. I think men should have the opportunity to walk away from pregnancy. A man who is childfree-by-choice should no more be "trapped" by an unwanted pregnancy than a woman who is.

So I don't think men should have an automatic obligation to pay child support, for example. If a man has not signed up for the responsibilities of fatherhood, he should not be assigned them, especially when the ultimate choice of whether or not to bring an unintended pregnancy to fruitition is not his to make.

Of course, along with this abdication of men's automatic responsibilities to children of their DNA, I also do not think impregnating someone else gives a man any automatic rights as a parent, either.

My alcoholic ex-husband, the biological father of my son, is not a good man, and he has never been a father. He did not provide care for me during pregnancy physically, emotionally, or financially. He did not modify his destructive behaviors to be a safe person for an infant to be around. He stole my son's change jar and cashed it in for drug money.

But if I were to die tomorrow, the law would give my son to this man, simply because they share DNA. I left this man when my son was a 6 week old infant. He has never heard my son speak, or seen him dance, or rushed him to the emergency room. He is not, in all ways that count, my son's father.

My boyfriend Viking is. He's held my son during immunizations, attended every school meeting, and tucked him into bed at night. He's given up recreational spending to start a college fund for our son, even as we struggle with our current expenses. He's studied autism along with me, so we can undersatnd our boy even better.

But he has no legal rights to the child he is helping me raise, because their DNA is different. We're looking into the process so he can legally adopt. (Finances dictate this is only in the theoretical stages for now.)

Even though I won full custody of my son three and a half years ago, my stated wishes in my Will are probably not enough to guarantee that in the case of my death, my son stays with his father, and isn't shipped off to live with a man who raped and abused, and yes, also impregnated me.*

I'd like to see a shift in our laws. Parenting well is a choice, made of daily actions and commitments and budgets. While there is no comparing a woman's body with a man's wallet, being able to enter parenting willingly rather than by obligation, coercion, and legal enforcement, is important for any parent.

Just as we must protect a woman's right to walk away from pregnancy via abortion, or to choose to let another parent a child she has born via adoption, we must protect a man's right to walk away. A man should never have a say in whether or not a woman terminates; that effects her body and her life. It is her choice to make. However, a man should have a say in whether or not he participates in the life of a born child.

So if he does want to raise his child, and the woman does want to birth it, a man should have legal recourse to petition for full cutsody, shared custody, regular visitation, etc.

Prior to birth, women have put in work bringing a child into the world. Women who haven't done this job "well" (say by using highly addictive narcotics during gestation) have their custody threatened. So should men who do not put any "work" into preparing for children they hope to raise. If a man does not physically, emotionally, or financially support or assist a pregnant woman, at the very least he is belittling her efforts. And it doesn't show a readiness for fatherhood, or a commitment to the health and well-being of his future child.

I wish all new biological parents, at hospitals or when applying for birth certificates for home births, had an opportunity to declare, once and for all "Yes, I commit to this child for a minimum of the next 18 years of his/her life and all the responsibilites and rights that go with that." or "No, I do not commit to raising this child. I do not wish to financially or otherwise support this child, and I abdicate any decision-making or custody rights I may have."

What if all parents wanted their kids? Imagine what a world and a society we could have. Imagine what happy children.

* The rape occurred after conception, during my pregnancy, when we were married.