(Note that this is cross-posted from my regular blog. So references are to earlier postings on that site. The links will take you there as needed.)
I started this thread with a specific question–should a man who engages in an isolated incident of casual sex with a woman be considered the parent of a child that results from the encounter? My proposed answer is no, and that’s really part of a grander contention that genetic linkage ought not to be a basis for status as a parent. I thought I’d start here by addressing what seems to me to be the obvious first objection–If we say that genetic linkage does not make you a parent, then aren’t we letting that guy from the one-night stand walk away scot-free?
My answer has two parts: “Not necessarily” and “So what if we are?” I’ll explain each below.
Not necessarily?–If the main concern here is providing financial support for the child (and I suspect it is) we can say that the man has financial obligations without saying he is a father. We’ve gotten into the habit of thinking of this as a quid pro quo sort of thing–you get to be the father so you have to pay support. But is there any reason why these two things have to be linked? There are countless situations where we simply hold people responsible for the consequence of their actions. I realize it might take some work to develop such a system, but nothing suggests to me that it would be impossible to do so. (I’m not sure if there are other concerns lurking here besides the child support one, but if there are, I think they can likely be addressed directly as well. That is, if there are consequences that we believe should follow from his actions, we can assign those consequences.)
So what if we are letting him walk away?–Well, in a way the question says it all. Why shouldn’t he walk away without obligation? (Notice that I’m assuming here that is what he wants to do. If he wants to be involved, then it’s a different story and I’ll deal with that another time.) The best objection to just letting him walk away is probably some concern with the well-being of either the child or the mother or society. I’ll talk about that at more length in coming days, but basically I wonder if it is really true that the child, for example, is better off if we rope the man in as “father.” What would make us think these two people who have no connection to each other beyond a few hours (if that) of carnal pleasure could effectively raise a child together? Why not let the mother either raise the child on her own or find a good partner/mate who can take on a parental role, too? Won’t everyone be healthier/happier/better off that way? I wonder about this both as a theoretical matter (which I can work through here) and as an empirical one.
I’ll end here with two parting thoughts. First, as a feminist, I cannot help noticing that what the concept of genetic parentage does is make fathers necessary. That is, if fatherhood can be based purely on the genetic link, then all children must have fathers. That means that women raising children without men are somehow lacking as families or perhaps even unnatural. I suspect this is part of the reason why cannot just let the man above walk away.
Second, I’ve got nothing against male parents. I know some wonderful ones. I think they deserve credit, support, praise and so on, just as female parents do. I think we do them a disservice when we lump them into a single category along with the one-night-stand man. Alas, I fear the term “father” as currently constructed does just that. I’d like to be able to say that they are fathers and he is not.