Right Cause, Wrong Approach

Tuesday , March 14, 2006

By Wendy McElroy


Last Thursday, The National Center for Men filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Michigan on behalf of Matt Dubay.

The NCM has nicknamed the suit 'Roe v. Wade for Men' because it seeks to allow men a legal right to decline the responsibilities of fatherhood to the same degree that women can currently decline motherhood through abortion: that is, absolutely.

The 25-year-old Dubay wants to relinquish all legal connection to a daughter borne last year by an ex-girlfriend who had assured him she was infertile. Specifically, he doesn't want to pay $500 a month in child support.

The suit will almost certainly fail in court; NCM probably knows this. The real purpose is to stir discussion of a neglected issue: the rights of men in reproduction. That is a laudable goal but, in pursuing it, the lawsuit stumbles by presenting those rights in the worst possible light.

The lawsuit's essential message is correct: the ongoing discussion of reproduction often proceeds as though men do not exist, especially regarding abortion. The marginalization of men in abortion is somewhat natural; as a matter of blunt biology, it is a woman's body. Unless the man has entered into a contract with the woman, she has a presumptive right of self control that trumps his claim. Otherwise, the man could force her to have an abortion or to become breeding stock.

The marginalization of men cannot be similarly justified, however, once a child is born and three entirely autonomous human beings exist. At this point, in my opinion, the worst inequity toward men in our society occurs. Men are held legally responsible for their children's support even when they are denied visitation. In essence, fathers have responsibilities without rights and that is a travesty, both legally and morally. Fathers live with broken hearts; children struggle without the love and guidance of both parents.

Responsible men should have a right to be active fathers; children should know both parents. That is the single strongest argument that advocates of men's and father's rights can advance. It opens the hearts and minds of all reasonable, caring people -- male or female, pro-choice or pro-life. And, having accepted the justice of one argument, people are more likely to listen sympathetically to others.

Unfortunately the case that NCM has chosen to spotlight harms rather than advances that argument. The lawsuit conflates and confuses the role of men in abortion with that of men toward existing children. By hyping the lawsuit as 'Roe v. Wade for Men,' NCM may well have attracted media attention but it also inextricably associates the suit with the single most divisive issue in society -- abortion.

Pro-choice advocates will be immediately alienated by NCM's press release, which states, "We [NCM] will ask a United States district court judge to apply the principles of reproductive choice, as articulated in Roe vs. Wade, to men. We will ask that men be granted equal protection of the laws which safeguard the right of women to make family planning decisions after sex."

Such language is far broader than necessary if NCM's goal is merely to allow men to relinquish fatherhood. Indeed, the language does not aim at the right of a man to merely remove himself from an unwanted pregnancy but the right to be involved in "family planning decisions."

On the other extreme, pro-life advocates will be immediately alienated by the specific father being championed. These advocates are motivated by a desire to protect children, which fetuses constitute for them. Matt Dubay wishes to abandon his daughter, not protect her.

Whether or not you believe men should have a right to abandonment, Dubay is not a sympathetic figure around which to rally. He is the anti-father. He is the worst possible face to put on the cause of men's rights.

Dubay is a bad choice on other grounds. The NCM press release states, "Matt insists that the child's mother repeatedly assured him she could not get pregnant and, also, Matt says that she knew he did not want to have a child with her."

In short, the suit argues one side of a 'he said/she said' scenario in which the man did not act to prevent conception.

Preventing an unwanted pregnancy is the obligation of every human being, male or female. To rely on chance or the word of another is to default on that obligation.

Anyone who pushes past both the abortion slugfest and Dubay's unsympathetic nature may arrive at the discussion that should have been clearly enunciated by the lawsuit; legal responsibilities should have corresponding legal rights. What are those responsibilities, what are those rights?

Even when these questions are clearly asked, the lawsuit's answers are counterproductive. It seeks to extend Roe v. Wade, which even pro-choice advocates recognize as 'bad' and ultimately unsustainable law. If successful, the lawsuit would create more bureaucracy and government in an area (family law) where bureaucracy is the problem.

For example, 'abandonment agencies' would be needed to handle the inevitable counseling requirement, the need for parental consent by underaged fathers, the paperwork on hearings required before the real papers could be signed, and so on.

A better approach would be to repeal laws and policies that enforce responsibilities without rights. Dismantle bureaucracies and encourage private agreement on family matters, preferably before children arrive. In the absence of agreement, promote arbitration so that courts become the last option and not the first resort.

The NCM lawsuit is a bad case that would result in worse law. But, perhaps because the suit will fail, that's not what bothers me the most about it. What bothers me most: it is an insult to every alienated father who desperately seeks to be a parent to his child. Why is NCM championing the anti-father when so many men ache for nothing more than the sight of their children's faces?

Wendy McElroy is the editor of and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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