kContinuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Can I Keep a Baby My Boyfriend Doesn’t Want?”
I am 38 and accidentally pregnant. It turns out my boyfriend does not ever want children, never mind after just a few months of dating; he wants me to have an abortion. I am pro-choice and not attached to what has begun to grow inside me. I had hoped to fall in love with a man and have a child with him, but I am well aware that I’m running out of time. While I’m apparently quite fertile, as time goes on the odds of getting pregnant get tougher, and there are enormous costs in egg freezing and/or I.V.F. For these reasons, I’m leaning heavily toward having the baby. My boyfriend is disturbed, angry and upset that I would have his baby ‘‘against his will,’’ as he put it. The point being, I think, that I can find another guy or get inseminated, so it’s not fair to have his baby because of my biological-clock concerns. I’ve read a lot about the ethics of expecting him to be involved or pay for support if he doesn’t want the child but not about whether it’s O.K. to choose to have the child at all.
I told him he can, guilt-free, have no involvement, but that’s not the issue for him. Are there ethical implications to consider here, especially because it is technically half his — he’s not a sperm donor who chose to let someone have his baby and not be involved — and I’m not against abortion (and have seriously considered it)? If it matters, he thought I was on birth control (but never asked, and I had requested that he use a condom once before), so he didn’t think he was having unprotected sex. Name Withheld
My response: Men and women differ in ways that society and the law can’t make up for, no matter how much people want equality. Pregnancy is one of the big differences, but the law still misses equality after pregnancy ends.
I could be wrong and I’m not a lawyer, but I understand that whatever the cause of a pregnancy, a woman who doesn’t want to be a mother has several options to remove responsibility: she can have an abortion, put the child up for adoption, or leave the baby with the state. Fathers may have some of the latter two options, but not as much as mothers, as far as I know.
Mainstream voices I’m aware of say that having sex obliges men to provide for the child with no recourse, even if he took precautions to prevent pregnancy. That is, if a woman chooses to keep a child both parents-to-be tried to avoid conceiving, she can still choose to avoid supporting the child but he can’t. If she keeps the child and one day seeks welfare, the state can pursue the man, though after the birth, she had choice and he didn’t. He could face jail while she wouldn’t.
The recourse of abortion being available to women but not men is grounded in biology. Once the baby is born, women seem to have more options than men, something unrelated to biology. Paper abortion is starting to take root in some countries to equalize this non-biological difference.
So you, the writer, have the right to choose, though if you can’t support the child, you may end up legally obliging the man to something he and you both tried to avoid. Whether you consider that obligation an ethical implication is up to you.
The New York Times response:
Let’s start with your startling last sentence. It is, to put it mildly, unwise for a fertile heterosexual couple to have intercourse without discussing whether either is using contraceptives. (For that matter, it’s unwise to have unprotected sex under any circumstances, unless you are both sure of the health status of the other party and you are in a monogamous relationship.) That you never had this conversation is not your fault alone. Men have often left the management of birth control to women, but this habit is neither fair nor prudent. Although your boyfriend doesn’t want you to have this baby, he had it in his power to try to make sure the pregnancy didn’t happen. Part of his anger may derive from the notion that you deliberately misled him, in order to try to entrap him with the child. It is an uncharitable thought, yet not an unfamiliar one. And it matters that he shares responsibility for the current impasse.
There are practical and legal consequences to consider. I’m not a lawyer, but as a general rule, a father must help support a child even if he didn’t want it. Otherwise every deadbeat dad could claim to be an unwilling one. And of course, he cannot force you to have an abortion. (I am not going to consider the question of whether abortion is morally permissible: You think it is, and I respect that view.) It’s worth noting, however, that your boyfriend’s reasons for not wanting a child are probably more than financial. Therefore, promising not to ask for child support won’t really meet his objections. He may well recognize that once he has a biological child, he will be partly responsible for it, even if he agreed to neither the pregnancy nor the birth. And because you have no idea what your future life course will be, you can’t be certain you will never require his help: Suppose, for example, your child one day needs a bone-marrow transplant and your boyfriend is likely to be the best donor. Then, too, an ongoing relationship with you would involve a relationship with your child. In a variety of ways, having the baby entails conditions and obligations that he doesn’t want.
I don’t have much sympathy, though, with the idea that he has property rights in his sperm or half-rights in the baby. Children aren’t property, and we should think about their futures in terms of their interests, our relationships with them and the responsibilities those connections entail. So both his feelings and the prospective interests of the child may provide some grounds for ending the pregnancy. (It may seem odd to say that consideration of someone’s interests may count against continuing his or her existence, yet that’s sometimes the case.) Ideally, in weighing all these considerations, you would be discussing them calmly with him — sharing your concerns and hearing the full range of his considerations — although, in the current state of your relationship, that may be difficult. You might consider going together to crisis counseling of some sort.
You’re within your rights, of course, to drop the boyfriend and keep the child. You want this child, and you are willing to take care of it on your own. The fact that women bear the greater risks of bringing children into the world makes it natural to grant their wishes greater weight than those of the men who are still (if only for the moment) also necessary. But the fact that your wishes ultimately have greater weight doesn’t mean that his wishes have none.
I am a student, and I have an opportunity to go to Rwanda to conduct research on the legacy of sexual violence in the wake of the genocide. It’s an incredible opportunity, but I’m afraid that the fact that I am a rape survivor will create bias in my work. Do you have any suggestions? Name Withheld
My response: Everyone has biases. No one can have perfect knowledge. We perceive through imperfect senses. Our limited minds throw out information. Our different beliefs lead us to interpret what we sense differently. Our imperfect memories drop information differently.
How is your ability to research different from anyone else?
The New York Times response:
What makes science objective is not the objectivity of individual scientists. It is the procedures for gathering, interpreting and challenging data and theories produced by fallible human beings. If every scientist had to have no stake in an issue, social science would be impossible, because in the social sciences, everybody has social identities that can be at stake in their work. Having a variety of stakes and perspectives can improve the science. Many daft things that were said about women and black people when scientists were almost always male and white have been corrected after the arrival of women and blacks in science. The perspective of a rape survivor on the significance of rape is as important as the perspectives of those who have no experience of it. Of course, it needs to be filtered, like all perspectives, through proper methods.
The worry is not whether you can contribute to good research on the topic; it’s how you will handle being exposed over and over again to the stories of women who have been through horrendous sexual violence. But you must have made the judgment that you can deal with it. And in some measure, this is a challenge for everyone, rape survivor or not, who does this important work.
A few years ago, my roommate lost her job and stopped paying her rent. After she moved out, we wound up in court. We settled on a payment plan for the full amount. She paid the first 90 percent of the settlement on schedule, but she is now seven months late on the final payment. If she completes her payments, there will be no legal record of her rent’s tardiness. If she misses a payment, however, I can file a judgment against her, which will remain on the record and make it public that she is a challenging tenant. I have compassion for her, as she is battling addiction. Is it ethical for me to file the judgment even though she has paid 90 percent of what is owed? Name Withheld
My response: I assume “we settled on a payment” in court means you signed a legally binding contract. What does the contract say?
What is the point of a contract if not to clarify each party’s obligations? If the contract says you can’t file a judgment if she’s paid 90 percent, then you won’t get far trying to file. If she signed a contract saying she’d pay 100 percent or you can file, you’re doing what she agreed you can do.
What ethical questions are there about doing something that everyone involved agreed on?
The New York Times response:
There are reasons for the legal record of judgment to disappear only if your ex-roommate meets its terms. One is to provide her an incentive to complete the payments. Another is that landlords inquiring about her reliability will be better able to evaluate it. Clearly, the policy has already failed in the former purpose. Allowing her to escape her record undermines the latter purpose. Her problems with addiction, it would seem, make her likely to be a difficult tenant.
Your choice is between mercy (letting her off the final payment and allowing her to appear reformed) and justice (insisting on your legal and moral right to get what she owes). The case against mercy here is that in letting her off the hook, you may well land others on it. As the aging courtier Escalus says in Shakespeare’s ‘‘Measure for Measure,’’ ‘‘Pardon is . . . the nurse of second woe.’’ And the woe here may also be for her, because part of dealing with addiction is learning to live up to your commitments.
Still, as the compassionate Isabella says to the sternly inflexible Angelo in the same play, in urging forgiveness for her brother: ‘‘I do think that you might pardon him,/And neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy.’’
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