Sam M passes along this Katie Roiphe essay that explores (without getting anywhere) the question of male responsibility for unborn children they fathered. It really shows where Enlightenment philosophy about social relations as well as liberal thinking on sex and abortion has put us.

Here’s the situation: Jack and Jill have sex. Jill gets pregnant. Jill says she wants an abortion. Jack says, “Please don’t; that’s my baby too, and I’ll take care of it.” Jill says it’s not his decision to make.

Or: Jack says he wants her to get an abortion. Jill says no, she’s keeping the baby, and it’s not his decision to make. OK, says Jack, but don’t expect me to pay any support. I didn’t sign up for this. Of course, in real life, if Jill could prove Jack’s parentage of her child, the courts would compel him to offer some support to the child financially.

In both instances, the woman holds all the power. Roiphe, who is an absolutist about the woman’s right to choose, concedes that the man in these cases is in an unfair position. He has no say over whether or not his unborn child lives or dies, yet he could be held financially liable for the child if the woman exercises her right to keep the baby. Again, Roiphe concedes the unfairness of this, but says she can’t think of a better way of handling things. She met with social scientist Dalton Conley to talk about this issue. Excerpt:

One of Conley’s more whimsical solutions to this impasse, in the conversation we had about it, was that people should download an app, a sort of contract before having sex, in which they agree to what they would do if a baby were conceived. This seems impractical, as well as anti-romantic and anti-aphrodisiac. There are some things that are better left not talked about, and what you would do if you accidentally conceived a child seems like it might be one of them.

However it’s hard to entirely dismiss Conley’s argument, based as he says on Enlightenment ideas linking rights and responsibilities, that if the man has no say whatsoever in whether the baby is born, he shouldn’t be held responsible for child support. This is another idea that comes up against absolutes that many of us would find hard to surrender: Namely that a man is financially responsible for his child. However, is that always and ubiquitously fair?

Again, in a practical world how could we enforce the idea that a man who didn’t really want a child wasn’t responsible for the child? How many deadbeat dads would step forward with their reluctance, their ambivalence, as a way to worm their way out of responsibility? It is very hard to see how this could be written into law, the didn’t-want-him argument, without wide-scale abuse and harm to the children involved. On the other hand, it might be reasonable to recognize that there is a certain amount of unfairness at play. There is the possibility that a woman who has a baby against a man’s will should in some moral, if not legal universe, claim financial responsibility for that child.

As I said, Roiphe doesn’t come up with a solution, though it’s hard to fault her for that, given the non-negotiables she holds as a good liberal and feminist. Sam adds this twist:

This is dangerous ground for a pro-choice activist. If the lump of cells is simply a lump of cells, and terminating it carries no moral weight … why should a dude be forced to pay to support the child?

The answer, as Sam recognizes, is also recognized by Roiphe: because not a deadbeat dad in the world would pay up. And yet, if the unborn child has no personhood, and aborting the child is morally no different from having a mole removed, why should the father be expected to pay for anything more than his half of the cost of the medical procedure?

This is what happens when sex is separated from social bonds and a more comprehensive way of understanding personhood and morality.