The Ethics of Fatherhood: On Rights, Responsibilities, and Abortion

Fresno Bee, June 19, 2022

Since this is Father’s Day weekend and our country is expecting a U.S. Supreme Court decision about abortion, let’s consider how the ethics of fatherhood connects to the ethics of abortion. Abortion is a matter of women’s rights. But as they say, it takes two to tango.

The Roe v. Wade decision briefly mentioned the ancient idea that abortion violated a “father’s right to his offspring.” In the old days, husbands and fathers controlled the reproductive lives of their wives and daughters. But Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to decide for herself, within limits, about terminating a pregnancy. Subsequent decisions, such as Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, clarified that when there was a conflict between mother and father about abortion, the mother’s right should prevail.

And yet, fathers may want a say in the matter. There are two very different ways this might occur. Some fathers may want the mother to keep the child. Other fathers may want the mother to abort.

This last kind of case has led some men to seek a so-called “financial abortion.” The idea here is that if a mother remains pregnant against the father’s wishes, he should not have to pay child support. So far, there is no legal basis for financial abortion. Instead, if paternity is established, fathers are liable for child support.

I suspect that if more men understood the obligation of child support, they would be more responsible about birth control. If you dance without protection, you may have to pay the piper.

This points us toward the importance of responsibility. It is not only the woman who is responsible for avoiding pregnancy. She didn’t dance alone. And when a child is born, both parents are responsible to care for the child.

Responsibilities are different from rights. Discussions of rights are typically about what we are free to do without interference. If you have a right to dance, you are free to dance with whomever you want, without the government preventing you. The right to an abortion is similar, as a kind of freedom from interference. Rights give us permissions, while responsibility gives us duties.

Responsibilities are harder to enforce. You are free to tango. But no one can force you to dance well. Nor can anyone force you to use protection when you dance. That area of responsibility is left up to the dancers.

Ethical men behave well before, during, and after the tango. They are respectful of the women they dance with. They are not selfish or cruel when they dance. And after the dance is over, they take responsibility for the outcome.

Of course, in our libertarian society, you are free, within limits, to be a bad father. “Dead beat dads” and abusive fathers can be punished. But apart from those extreme cases, there is no legal obligation to be a good dad.

And what do good dads do? Well, they love their children. This means that they are responsible and caring, compassionate and supportive. This lovingkindness extends throughout a child’s life.

One way that paternal love unfolds is through a kind of identification. Paternal love is like the Golden Rule but more intimate. We love our children as ourselves because they remain a part of us. A father’s love is both selfish and selfless. There is no room in paternal love for jealousy, resentment, or cruelty.

Good fathers also respect the autonomy of their children. A father does not own his children. They will transcend him. Good fathers do not impose or command. Rather, they encourage and support, knowing that when the child becomes herself, she will leave him behind.

Again, the metaphor of dancing comes to mind. Dance is responsive. It involves structure. But it also includes freedom. A dance without freedom is a slogging march. But dance without structure is merely a spasm of movement. Somewhere in the middle there is beauty, grace, and joy.

Let’s not forget the importance of paternal love and responsibility as we think about the ethics of abortion in the coming weeks. We have a right to dance. But we also have a responsibility to dance well. And somewhere in all of this, we ought to seek transcendence, joy, and love.

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Abortion, Unwanted Pregnancy, and the Really Big Questions

As the Supreme Court revisits the abortion debate with the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, let’s consider a broader and more systematic point of view.  Abortion is not a first choice or a best choice.  No woman gets pregnant intending to have an abortion.  Rather, abortion comes up as a choice only after something else has gone wrong. 

Outlawing abortion is a simplistic solution to a complex problem.  The problem is unwanted pregnancy—and any solution to that problem must involve many significant changes in our social lives that would need to occur to make unwanted pregnancies less likely.  This is related to the idea that abortion should be “legal but rare,” an idea I have discussed in more detail elsewhere.

The legal debate involves complex Constitutional questions.  Was the right to privacy articulated in Roe v. Wade wrongly “invented” by the Court in its 1973 decision, as conservatives argue?  What is the status of Roe as a precedent?   How does the idea of a right to privacy connect with other issues involving sex, marriage, and family law?

Those legal questions are different from the really big moral questions.  A fundamental moral question is “who counts as a moral patient?” This begs us to consider what kind of being a fetus is (and at what stage in its development it attains moral status).  The moral status of a fetus relates to the rights of its mother.  This includes the fact that the fetus is entirely dependent upon her.  I discuss these issues in much more detail in my ethics textbook and in a recent column

Abortion is considered as an exception to the general idea that pregnancy usually is a positive thing.  It is usually good to give birth.  But some pregnancies are unwanted.  One significant issue is pregnancy that results from rape and incest.  Another issue involves pregnancies that can harm a mother.  Another issue involves disabled fetuses.  And then there are cases in which a woman is just not ready—economically or psychologically—to become a mother.  Pregnancy can occur at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons.  And pregnant women can encounter physiological, psychological, economic, and social hardships.

What kind of a social world would we have to create so that unwanted pregnancy could be avoided and those hardships could be ameliorated?

Such a world would involve free and easy access to birth control and sex education—beginning at the age at which conception can occur.  This would empower women to avoid pregnancy in the first place.  A changed world would involve the end of sexual manipulation and deception.  This is not only about rape but also about less violent forms of sexual exploitation and coercion that occur in a world where women are objectified and manipulated by men into having sex.  A world with fewer abortions would be a world in which women had power over their lives, the bodies, and their sexuality.

Other issues arise in relation to fetal abnormality and women’s health.  A world with fewer abortions would include much better healthcare.  This better world would remedy environmental factors that contribute to fetal abnormality and unhealthy pregnancies.  Such a world would also provide substantial supports for disabled children and their families.  And in such a world, women’s health would be prioritized throughout a woman’s life.

Of course, this is not our world.  We live in a world in which women are objectified and manipulated into sex.  We live in a world in which sexual education often fails to enlighten and in which no one really discusses sexual ethics.  In our world, birth control is often not easily available.  We live in a world in which poverty, pollution, and lack of healthcare afflict far too many women and families.   

As the Court revisits Roe v. Wade, let’s also reconsider our social world.  The Court will decide a narrow question of whether states can limit or ban abortion.  This will not make unwanted pregnancies go away.  Even if Roe is overturned, illegal abortions will occur in states that ban it and women who want abortions (and can afford it) will travel to states that are more permissive. 

Meanwhile, in the background are significant social problems that come to a head in the issue of unwanted pregnancy.  Let’s work to solve those problems by empowering women, providing better sexual education (including education about sexual ethics and birth control), and by imagining substantial changes in our economic and healthcare systems.