Jennifer was crushed when she was told that a baby was on the way. She wants to have children, but the right way--after she has found the right person and is married. But in Jennifer's country, she has no choice. "Jenn" cannot give the child up for adoption, and she cannot terminate the pregnancy. It is her burden to bear, for the next two decades, like it or not.
What country is it which compels a person to have a child they don't want? Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia?
No, it's the United States--not for Jenn, but for Ken.
Ken Johnson, a 10 year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department, wanted to be a father, but with the right woman, and at the right time. Three years ago he and his wife separated after six years of marriage, and each began to date. During this time, according to court documents filed in Snohomish County, Washington, Ken had a brief affair with "Cathy," which resulted in a pregnancy. Ken's legal complaint alleges that he begged Cathy to put the child up for adoption or to terminate the pregnancy, but Cathy refused. Now Ken and his wife, who reconciled two and a half years ago, can't start a family of their own because almost half of Ken's net income from the Seattle Fire Department goes to support the child he didn't want to have. He says:
"People tell me that Cathy should have the choice whether to keep the child or not because it's her body so it's her choice. I agree. But what about my body? I make my living rushing into burning buildings. I put my life and my safety on the line every time I go to work, and now I'm on the hook for 18 years. With the child support demands on me, there's no way I'll ever be able to quit. What about my choice?"
Johnson is part of a growing movement of men who bristle at being "coerced fathers," and who have enlisted in a "Choice for Men" movement whose goals are every bit as legitimate as the goals of the women's reproductive rights movement. They note that one million American women legally walk away from motherhood every year by either adoption, abortion, or abandonment, and demand that men, like women, be given reproductive options. They point out that, unlike women, men have no reliable contraception available to them, since the failure rate of condoms is substantial, and vasectomies are generally only worthwhile for older men who have already married and had children. And they emphasize that, with long backlogs of stable, two-parent families looking for babies to adopt, there is no reason for any child born out of wedlock to a "coerced father" to be without a good home.
The Choice for Men movement seeks to give "coerced fathers" the right to relinquish their parental rights and responsibilities within a month of learning of a pregnancy, just as mothers do when they choose to give their children up for adoption. These men would be obligated to provide legitimate financial compensation to cover natal medical expenses, the mother's loss of income during pregnancy, etc. The right would only apply to pregnancies which occurred outside of marriage.
Some of those who fought for women's reproductive choices agree with choice for men. Karen DeCrow, former president of the National Organization for Women, writes:
"If a woman makes a unilateral decision to bring a pregnancy to term, and the biological father does not, and cannot, share in this decision, he should not be liable for 21 years of support ... autonomous women making independent decisions about their lives should not expect men to finance their choice."
To date, courts have refused to consider fathers' reproductive rights even in the most extreme cases, including: when child support is demanded from men who were as young as 12 when they were statutorily raped by older women; when women have taken the semen from a used condom and inserted it in themselves, including from condoms used only in oral sex; and when women concealed the pregnancy from the man (denying him the right to be a father) and then sued for back and current child support eight or ten years later.
"It doesn't make sense to me," Ken's wife Patti says. "The courts force my husband and I to support a child he never agreed to, but make it financially impossible for him to have a child with the woman he loves and married."
This column first appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal and the San Francisco Daily Journal (2/18/02).