The issue of abortion rights is scarcely the only one in which our society grants women and others significant control over men’s rights regarding children. Far from it. Legislating men’s right to parental surrender, as I described last time, is the closest we can come to equalizing men with women regarding abortion. Beyond that though, there are many other areas that need work before we can say that men have real control over their reproductive and parental rights.
The most obvious is that of child custody. Despite mountains of evidence that children do best on a wide variety of measures when they grow up with both biological parents in the home, we insist on marginalizing fathers. Family courts, domestic abuse policies, adoption laws, child welfare agencies, paternity fraud, pop culture, and others all militate in favor of female and state hegemony over male reproductive and parental rights. This is not only a crime against gender equality and fundamental fairness, it’s a crime against children who suffer the loss of fathers, society generally that suffers those children’s resulting dysfunction and the public purse that’s drained to pay for that dysfunction. Our willful marginalization of fathers is the single most important social issue we face.
Consider divorce court. In 1993, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 84% of custodial parents were mothers. By 2017, that number had only dropped to 80%, i.e., little change at all. That’s despite the fact that, during all those years, the tide of evidence of the importance of fathers to children had become a flood. As multiple studies demonstrate, when a child sees his/her father only the 15% - 24% of the time typically ordered by family courts, the relationship breaks down; he becomes little more than what sociologist Susan Stewart called a “Disneyland Dad,” more a temporary entertainer than a father.
Family courts grant custody to mothers despite the fact that unmarried custodial mothers with minor children are about twice as likely to live in poverty as are the rest of us, including custodial fathers. If Mom’s poor, so are her children who live with her.
Since the mid-70s, we’ve known that women commit as much violence against their domestic partners as do men and probably more. But for decades, mostly mothers have been allowed to use allegations of domestic abuse against fathers as leverage in custody battles. Most of them don’t, of course, and judges have belatedly begun to spot false claims. Still the ease with which men can be removed from their homes and children solely on the say-so of their female partner continues as a common method of controlling men’s access to their kids.
Adoption? Over 30 states have “putative father” registries that require single men to file a form with the state if they believe they’ve fathered a child. Failure to do so means they forfeit their right to notice if the mother places the child for adoption. Plus, by denying fit fathers the opportunity to care for their children, we simultaneously deny adoptive parents to kids who need them. There are far fewer adoptions completed each year than there are children in foster care and elsewhere who need homes, so by forcing adoption on children with fathers, we effectively deny parents to kids who need them.
Which brings me to a more generic point. Nowhere in the U.S. is a woman required to simply inform a man that he has a child. She may do so if she wants, but he has zero right to know. If she chooses to tell him, say, 10 years into his child’s life, he miraculously gains parental rights to a child to whom he’s a complete stranger and the obligation to pay past and future child support. If she never tells him, she’s committed no legal wrong despite the fact that the child has missed out on his love and support.
That brings us to paternity fraud. A woman may tell a man he’s the father of her child, but she needn’t tell the right one. Yes, Title IV-D of the Social Security Act requires a woman to, if she receives federal welfare benefits, disclose a name to the state agency in charge of enforcing child support orders. That places on him the obligation to repay the government for benefits he hasn’t received. Need Mom identify the actual father? No. Many are the cases in which a TANF recipient has mis-identified the father with no legal consequence to her for having done so.
Paternity fraud devastates three people – the child who believes one man is their father only to learn differently later, the man who believes he’s the father and devotes himself to the child only to learn he’s not and the man who is actually the father but who’s shut out of the child’s life. Meanwhile, the child’s medical care may require a thorough knowledge of their genetic makeup. Diagnoses may be wrong or impossible without that information, but paternity fraud makes it impossible to obtain.
This is all true despite the fact that the mother knows with whom she’s had sex. Therefore, she knows to a certainty who the possible fathers are. It would be a simple matter to require her to disclose the fact of her pregnancy to all possible fathers so that, shortly after birth, the right man could be identified. For that matter, we could simply make paternity testing a regular part of the other post-partum testing done on children. That way, there’d be no doubt about paternity, no heartache or confusion and no litigation later on.
But we take none of those simple, commonsense steps. In the process, we allow women considerable power over what should be men’s reproductive and parental rights.
I could go on and on and discuss things like parental alienation and maternal gatekeeping that are well known and almost invariably winked at by courts, mental health professionals and laws. But I suspect you get the picture. We’re a society that’s perfectly aware of the many ways in which we grant women power over men’s reproductive rights that we would never grant to men over women’s rights. Nor should we.
And it’s not just mothers who wield that power, the state does too. As the Urban Institute reported in 2006, child protective agencies routinely marginalize fathers in the lives of their children by choosing foster care over father care when the child’s mother proves abusive or neglectful. All states require boys who’ve been raped by women to pay child support for any resulting child, never mind that, according to the laws of those same states, he’s too young to have consented to sex. Child support laws themselves have been shown to marginalize fathers – particularly poor ones – in the lives of their children.
Women have an astonishing variety of safe, cheap and effective contraception methods. Men have none. Vasectomy is effective, but not cheap; condoms are cheap, but not very effective. Meanwhile, Vasalgel, that’s highly effective and free of side effects, remains unavailable to men in the U.S. because the FDA ruled that none of the data on it that have been accumulating in India (under the name RISUG) for almost two decades can be used to gain FDA approval.
And, in a category by itself is pop culture that, in dramas, advertisements and comedies routinely depicts men and fathers as either incompetent buffoons or dangerously violent to women and children. Amazingly, at least one researcher has found the problem getting worse, not better, despite our growing knowledge of fathers’ value to kids. The gist of those pop culture portrayals being that, since men are untrustworthy, it can’t be wrong to kick them to the curb.
So when we hear, as we will, abortion rights proponents complaining about whatever the Supreme Court does in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, remember the great power women wield over men’s reproductive and parental rights and how the state and pop culture abet that power.