But What If I Don't Want to Be a Dad?

A year after President Obama launched his "fatherhood initiative" to address the problems facing 23 million children in America living without their dads, one researcher thinks she can do the president one better with a controversial new plan.


Consider this scenario: A 19-year-old man in Harlem is dating an 18-year-old woman, a friend of a friend whom he met in high school. Both have no plans to go to college, and both come from low-income backgrounds. Neither wants to get married anytime soon, and they make it clear to each other that, despite the fact that many of their siblings and friends have children, they're not ready for that responsibility.

Until she gets pregnant and everything changes.

The man, who is unemployed and who has already had several run-ins with the law, reminds her that he's not ready to be a father. But she's had a change of heart; she's keeping the baby. If he doesn't financially support it, she informs him, she's going to the police to press charges with the child-support enforcement agency, which can garnish his tax refunds, suspend his driver's license or put him in jail for failure to pay. Our story ends with the young man trying to formulate a 21-year plan (in New York, child support needs to be paid until the child is 21) to provide money he rarely has to a kid he never wanted.

It's an age-old conundrum. And with more than 23 million American children living without their fathers, it's a conundrum with serious ramifications. One year ago, President Barack Obama launched his "fatherhood initiative" to promote male parenting through educational forums and transitional jobs programs for the unemployed. But such programs can take a while before they show real results. And one Brown University researcher is suggesting a controversial solution to the problem before it starts: the financial abortion.

In other words, what if a man who has made it perfectly clear in advance that he does not want to be a father, is able to walk away from any and all financial obligations if his partner does become pregnant against his wishes? Would "choice" extend to him as well? Would that cut down on the number of children living without their biological fathers?

Last month, on the one-year anniversary of the initiative, President Obama said that he "can't legislate fatherhood." And yet to many men throughout the United States -- men maligned by the media as "deadbeat dads," men in prison for dereliction of daddy -- it seems as if the government is doing exactly that, requiring by law that all men with children fit its definition of a good father (which often requires writing hefty checks). What's more, even when men make it very clear to their partners that they don't want to be fathers in the first place, America's answer is simple: Sorry; either remain celibate and childless, or have intercourse and be prepared to relinquish all decisions about a pregnancy to your partner, who, when it comes to child support payments, has the full support of the U.S. government.

But what of men who, resources or not, have no desire to be fathers?

Professor Frances Goldscheider teaches sociology at Brown, where she came up with the idea that, she says, has made her question some of her deepest, most long-standing beliefs: "While I thought I was a feminist all my life, when I started studying the family and fatherhood in general, I realized that I was really an egalitarian. I want a level playing field in the family for men and women."

If it were law, a financial abortion would allow a man -- one who has specifically said to his partner before intercourse that he doesn't want to be a father -- to void all monetary responsibility for any pregnancy. Without question, the woman could carry the child to term, but she and the law could then never come looking for the dad for child support. It sounds harsh -- so much so that Goldscheider admits it will probably never be more than a dream theory -- but proponents believe that such a policy could very well make a huge dent in the nation's scourge of absentee fathers, especially in the African-American community.

"I think it would primarily benefit men who do not want to be fathers," Goldscheider says, "and that's mostly those who are not ready, whether financially or whatever. And given the structure of inequality in this country, it should disproportionately benefit young black men."