Parental Obligation, Abortion, and Choice

Posted on June 19, 2012 by


Many of those that believe a woman should have a right to choose (whether to abort or keep her baby) also believe that men should have to pay child support, but, is holding both of these statements consistent? Fairly recently, feminist philosopher Elizabeth Brake (2005) has argued that it’s inconsistent and unfair to hold that women can choose but men cannot. She offers a view on parental obligation that falls in line with the famous violinist argument that was given over 30 years ago by Judith Jarvis Thomson. Here, I’ll consider Brakes argument. Ultimately, I’ll argue against her, but in doing so, I’ll also put some pressure on those in favor of the pro-choice position and those in favor of the voluntarist thesis of parental obligation.

Brake argues that parental obligation occurs when parents willingly accept the responsibility to become a parent (this has been called the “voluntarist position”). This doesn’t occur simply by having sex. If someone thinks that it does then abortion would be wrong. For many, that conclusion is just fine as they find the act of abortion morally wrong and an act that should be against the law. However, those that think a woman should have the choice creates an interesting case for men. Should they get to choose? Meaning; should men choose if they want to pay support or not? After all, men cannot choose to keep or abort the child but should they choose if they want to be a parent or not? I’ve posed this question to a similar blogger but have yet to receive a response. So, in this post I’ll consider some theories of parental obligation ultimately concluding that men should in fact pay support. But, I’ll also consider what type of theory one should adopt in order to be consistent that women should have a choice and men should not (I’m not advocating for a pro-choice position only suggesting how one could argue for a such a position in light of seeming inconsistencies).

In her 2005 piece Fatherhood and Child Support Elizabeth Brake argues that the way we perceive of paternal responsibility is misguided. Her primary aim is to call into question the traditional causal understanding of paternal responsibility, concluding that unwilling fathers do not owe support to their children. The fact that they are causally responsible for the child’s life coming into existence is not enough to justly impose duties onto the father to pay child support.

She argues that intuitively, paternal responsibility is seen on a continuum. On the one end it seems that a man whose sperm is stolen and used to produce a child is not obligated to pay support for that child. On the other end of the continuum, it seems that a father who willingly seeks to impregnate a woman is obligated to pay child support. Between these two extremes is a man who “unwillingly” becomes a father as a result of failed contraceptive. This middle case, which I’ll call “run-of-the-mill” cases (‘ROTM’ from here on out), (cases in which a man consents to sex, has no intention to procreate, and contraception fails), is the focus of Brake’s essay, and these are the cases that I’ll focus on here. I’ll quickly bring out some major points in Brake’s argument before showing why I disagree. I’ll criticize Brake’s argument in order.

(1) – Brake argues that if we take as a starting  point the claim that woman do not owe a fetus a right to their bodies by the simple facts that they a)consented to sex, and b)took proper precautions to prevent pregnancy, then it follows by extension that men should not be obligated to pay support in ROTM cases either.

Response: There is an asymmetry in the analogy Brake is trying to draw. First, the biological facts of pregnancy put woman at a disadvantage when asked to make a decision. Because of this, in an attempt to give both parties a decision to choose, we should push a man’s freedom to choose further back than that of a woman for those that think a woman has a right to choose whether to keep a fetus or not (Here I should mention that I am not convinced that a woman should have the right, that is an open question for me. But for the purposes of considering Brake’s argument it will suffice to show that if one does think a woman has a right to choose then one is not necessarily committed to Brake’s position that a man should also have the right to choose in the same way). Further, there are social facts that currently put women at a disadvantage, but, I need not delve into the mountains of feminist literature to prove this latter point.

(2) – Brake claims that the burdens of paying child support are on par with carrying out a pregnancy. Brake considers the argument against her parity of reasoning between men and women’s parental obligations that says women are at more of a disadvantage because of the physical nature of the pregnancy. She concludes that the parental burdens are symmetrical between a man and a woman and because of this both should have the same choice with regards to being a parent.

Response: The significant burden that she claims are placed on fathers to provide support is grossly over stated. All things being equal I simply cannot see her case here. She points to a man having to change his life plans in order to pay support. This is simply not the case in most instances.

Let’s use Massachusetts as an example. In Massachusetts[1]if a man makes 20,000 dollars per year he must pay 333 per month in support. Is that enough to raise a child? Not nearly enough! Who is forced to come up with the rest? Women! Women also need to live in bigger places to provide sufficient living arrangements for her and her child. She must also be burdened with finding proper care when she wants to socialize. A man is not required to do any of this. Further, a man needs to work to support himself anyway, and, he is not forced to work extra hours. He could limit his lifestyle and make changes accordingly. Women on the other hand have a much more difficult time finding employment that works around her child’s caretakers schedule, and, she too might have to take on the same job that Brake mentions a man might have to in order to provide most of the funds that are necessary to raise a child.

If we use Massachusetts as an example, the 333 dollars would likely only cover the extra rent that would be needed to have another bedroom in one’s apartment. The expenses of clothing, food, transportation, child care, school needs, and higher utility bills is much higher than the price a man must pay to help support the child. Not to mention, a woman is limited with her options because often times she is the sole parent living with the child. This limits her ability to further her education or take on a job that requires a large dedication of her time. I think it’s strikingly obvious that most of the burden id on the parent that lives with the child, and, more often than not that burden falls on a woman’s shoulders. I’ve argued for this without appeal to the social conditions that are already in place that prevent equal pay and fair chances for woman to reap the same societal benefits as man currently have. Nor have I appealed to the 9 months of physical and emotional pain a woman may have during her pregnancy—many times leaving scars that last a life time (stretch marks, psychological stress, anxiety, etc. At the end of the day Brake will need to provide further support for why we should think that the parental experience and burdens are symmetrical. In most cases it simply falls heavier on the shoulders of women.

(3) -  Brake claims if one holds that conceiving a child in consensual sex obligates a parent to support it until its maturity then one cannot hold that adoption is a permissible option.

Response: This last claim by Brake is much different from the 2 previous claims I’ve considered. This claim by Brake is directed at those that hold that women and men are obligated to keep the child (with regards to women) and support it until it’s 18 yr’s old (with regards to men) because they both chose to engage in an action that resulted in a child. But, why should we accept her claim? Why think that adoption is not a form of giving a child support until it’s mature? I think that it is. The child is taken care of, bottom line.


Admittedly, I’ve only briefly sketched some of Brake’s argument here. She is a voluntarist with regards to parental obligation. This suggests that we do not have any ‘special responsibility’ for something or someone unless we have assumed responsibility for it either implicitly or explicitly. So, if parents do not try to take preventative measures to sidestep the pregnancy (birth control, condom, etc.) then they implicitly assume responsibility, and, if they do take reasonable preventative measures then they are not responsible. From here, under the assumption that this voluntarist picture of moral responsibility is correct, Brake, by extension, claims that fathers are only parentally obligated to support their children if they implicitly or explicitly assume responsibility. And, in ROTM cases they do not assume responsibility; therefore they are not obligated to give support. Brake argues that this view of moral responsibility is not only plausible but it adheres to our “common sense morality”. I couldn’t disagree more.

Let us consider two cases where this “common sense morality” that Brake and others think the voluntarist conception lead us. These cases should cause us to reconsider how viable the voluntarist conception is and lead us to a causal account.

Consider a betting scenario in a world called fifty thousand dollar land (FTDL). Jack wants fifty thousand dollars to buy a home. Let’s assume that Jack has no other way of buying a home in this world, actually no one really does, unless he gets a fifty thousand dollar check in hand. (Wages in this world do not exceed 2 cents per day so saving up is not a viable option.) So, as Jack gets older he hears of a bet he could make in order to get the fifty thousand dollars. It is a horse racing bet. Many have taken a similar bet at Jack’s ripe old age of 21 and most, nearly 90%, have won the bet, but 10% have lost. Jack needs to come up with 5 cents to place the bet but will receive fifty thousand if he wins! If Jack loses the bet he will still get to sleep for one night in any new house of his dreams, but, the following day and for the next 18 years he may be forced to pay 1 of the 5 cents per week he earns to the owner of the horse, and further, he will not be the owner of the home he spent a night in. He may get lucky, as some others have, and the horse owner may forgive his debt, but this only happens from time to time and is not something Jack can count on.

Now, there are many precautions that Jack must take in order to better his chances of winning the bet. He must know the horses well, he must know how each horse performs under certain weather conditions, and, to truly maximize his chances of winning, he should even learn the attitudes and dispositions of the horses so he can tell which ones really want to race on any given day. Now, let’s assume Jack took all of these precautions. The day of the race comes and he chooses a horse. The horse seems to be ready, it’s raining, and Jack knows that Ruby loves to run in the rain. The other horses don’t stand a chance (or at least that’s what Jack thinks). The race begins and half-way through Ruby falls and breaks her leg, another horse wins and Jack loses the bet. Now, it seems quite obvious to me that Jack is not only causally responsible for placing the bet, but also obligated to pay his debt. After all, he knew when he decided to make the bet that he could be asked to pay 1/5 of his pay for 18 years if he lost. I don’t think many would think Jack is obligated if one held a gun to his head to make him place the bet. But in the case provided he wasn’t forced. Also, asking Jack not to place the bet in the first place seems overly onerous, after all, this is the only way that Jack could own a nice stable home in FTDL.

It seems that Jack, like “unwilling fathers”, took the proper precautions to not lose the bet. The odds of losing the bet are strikingly similar to the odds of accidentally impregnating a woman. And, if new research tells us otherwise we can change the odds accordingly to match them identically.

The voluntarist view of responsibility seems to miss cases like Jack’s. After all, Jack did not intend to lose the bet and took proper precautions to prevent it from happening, and, because of those precautions his chances of winning were analogously high to those of the “unwilling father”. Whereas a causal account would hold Jack accountable (as I think many agree that he should) and hold a man liable to pay support (also, as many think that he should). This seems to get at our “common sense morality”. “Taking precautions to avert undesirable outcomes” is not sufficient to “excuse one from blame if the outcomes come to pass”as Brake would have us believe.

I have many other thought experiments that I could appeal to hear but I won’t. The take home point for me is this. If you’re a voluntarist about parental responsibility then it may seem as though you run into some issues.

But, rather than get into an in-depth discussion regarding voluntarist vs. causal account of responsibility, let’s consider the implications of the responses I gave to (1) and (2) with a few questions. (A)If one thinks that a man must pay support are you them committed to a causal thesis to ground responsibility? And, if you are, (B) are you then committed to a women not having the right to choose to have an abortion?

To (B); I don’t think that you are. In order to still claim that a mother has the right to choose and a father does not one could appeal to the fetus as not yet a “child”. Whereas once the child is born then that is a child and the causal thesis then takes over to ground the father’s obligation. Again, I’d like to make clear here that I am not adopting this line of thought, I’m suggesting this is how one could argue on these grounds. I do think a fetus has value but have not argued for the legality of the choices involved when deciding what to do about that value.

In response to (A); I think one must be committed to the causal thesis, and, this means that those who buy into Brake’s and Thomson’s voluntarist view of parental obligation in order to justify a woman’s right to abort are misguided.


[1] This site calculates how much support would be owed by a man depending on how much he makes in the state of Massachusetts.

Brake, Elizabeth.2005.  “Fatherhood and Child Support” Journal of Applied Philosophy

Thomson, Judith. 1971. “A Defense of Abortion”  Philosophy and Public Affairs