I got into a discussion on just this question with my mother once upon a time. If we say, unilaterally, that it is a woman’s choice to carry or not to carry a pregnancy to term, then at what point can we say that a man must provide for the child? To make sound decisions, a person must be responsible for the costs as well as the benefits. But I am uncomfortable in dealing with the situation where the man wants an abortion and a woman doesn’t. There really isn’t some kind of natural compromise situation here. So even if we were to say, “It’s not strictly the woman’s choice,” there’s really nothing we can do with the leeway we’ve just given ourselves.
This argument is weird. The woman knew there was a possibility that she would get pregnant and have to take care of the child herself, so she should live with the consequences. Being uniquely in control of whether or not she can even keep the pregnancy, this is the best person to make that decision, not the man. The man is the worst person to put any responsibility on.
Men face fairly perverse incentives in sexual behavior since women bear the costs of pregnancy. This is a natural fact of existence, not a comment on men (or women). Trying to impose some of these costs on men may help, but it is not clear that this can really be effective, because it turns into a weird (and expensive) enforcement problem. Perhaps it would be cheaper to just give $10,000 to a woman who is pregnant and decides not to have an abortion or give the child up for adoption.
Human existence has sort of separated sexual behavior from reproductive behavior. We expect couples to have sex; we do not expect couples to “try to have a child.” These are distinct behaviors. The cost of unwanted reproduction is enormously out of alignment with the benefit of sexual behavior in making people happy. Forcing two people to share this burden instead of one might make us feel morally happy but it is not clear to me at all that it fixes the underlying incentive problem. Women still feel the burden disproportionately, as they must factor in the cost of unwanted pregnancy with the cost of pursuing child support (even if we make it legal to collect, it is still a cost). So we’ve slightly adjusted the cost, but in the right proportion? What is the right proportion?
Suppose, for example, that instead of child support we flipped a coin when a women became pregnant. If it is heads, the woman bears the cost (raises the child without legally compelled support); if it is tails, the man bears the cost. Even this is in the man’s favor, because the woman will always end up carrying the child to term (even if the man is forced to pay the medical bills it is still in the man’s favor). There’s just a basic biological cost that cannot be accounted for.
I do feel that men should bear the consequences of their decision, but simple logic is enough to tell me that this will not happen, even if we try to compel them through law. We’ve got to try to fix the incentive problem.
Here’s a market that can’t exist: pregnancy insurance. There’s no way anyone in their right mind would allow someone to take out a policy as a contingency against getting pregnant. The incentive to cheat is too great. This is as true of men as it is of women. Both sexes are totally uninsurable here. It gets worse. People improve the world, on average, by virtue of existing and producing and being available as a mate and tipping in restaraunts and smiling at you, making your day a little brighter. If you have a child, it improves my life. But you and yours are the only ones that bear the cost. This is a positive externality problem. (This is also why I suggested the $10,000 check. Yes, I do want to encourage reproduction. We don’t make enough kids.) So maybe it isn’t just the man we need to get to pay for pregnancy, it’s everyone else, too. In this case, it doesn’t really matter if we impact the man’s motivations; if we can help bear the cost of pregnancy as a society, we can help women’s choices be more sensible.
Pregnancy, overall, is a good thing. While we should seek to ensure the woman does not bear disproportionate costs to the best of our ability, we should not impose costs as some kind of moral punishment. Forcing fathers to pay child support may fix one side of the incentive problem, but it doesn’t solve the greater problem that we simply don’t have enough children. Women are in absolutely the best position to decide whether or not to have a child. They know far more about their own position than the guy she’s sleeping with or a legislator poised to make that man pay. There is really no one better. Once we accept that, we can find a better social policy (which I do expect to include child support).
Note: as a child who’s father left him and his mom when he was six months old, and therefore struggled our whole lives, I’m not coming at this from some position of privilege or lack of understanding. It’s a philosophical question for me.