From Here To Paternity: A Dialogue       (Originally appeared in Full Context)


by John Enright


Maria, a college sophomore, finds she is pregnant.  She phones George, a college junior.

She asks him if he remembers her.  He says yes.  She asks him if he remembers that they had unprotected sex together several weeks ago.  He says yes.  She tells him that she has become pregnant and hasn’t decided whether or not to have an abortion.

In response he earnestly recommends that she have an abortion, particularly since he does not want a child.  “I assumed that what we did together was just for the sake of mutual pleasure.  I assumed that you were either using some non-visible form of birth control or else that you would have an abortion if you got pregnant.  I never assumed that you might decide to keep the baby.  That would not have been a reasonable assumption.  It’s your decision, of course, whether or not to have an abortion.  If you choose to bring a child into the world, it will be your own decision, not mine, and by your decision you will have assumed full responsibility for the care and support of the child.  I will not be trapped into taking responsibility for a situation I didn’t cause.”

Maria replies that he did indeed cause the situation.

“No,” he says.  “You have the power and freedom to abort.  I have no such power or freedom.  If you have this baby, you will be the person who caused it to come into existence.  Not me.”

“Your position sounds familiar to me,” says Maria.  “Tell me, did you happen to read a couple of articles that appeared on this topic in the Navigator?”

“Sure,” says George.  “I’ve done my own thinking about this stuff, but those were great articles.”  [“The Moral Tradition: Responsibility”, by David Ross, 5/98; “Debate”, 9/98]

“I remember them too,” says Maria, “but I had trouble with the logic.  The cause and effect relationship between sex and children persists, regardless of medical progress.  The technological marvel of safe abortion lets a woman intervene in the chain of events.  But if you ask ‘where do babies come from?’, the proper answer can hardly be ‘from a failure to abort.’”

“Look,” says George, “you haven’t been pregnant long, and it’s not really precise to call what is currently inside you a ‘baby’.  At present it’s just an embryo or maybe a fetus.  So in no way have I caused a baby to come into existence.  But you will cause one to come into existence if you don’t abort that thing.  Babies come from pregnant women who don’t terminate their pregnancies.”

“That last statement is true as far as it goes,” says Maria.  “But consider the causal chain: Babies come from pregnant women, who in turn came from pregnant women, who in turn came from pregnant women, and so on.  You’re leaving something vital out of your account: the fact of fatherhood.”

George answers, “Well, perhaps I’ve made you pregnant, but I’m certainly not going to make you have a baby.  That’s strictly your decision.  You’re a free and autonomous person.  It’s your affair, not mine.  As I see it, I may be a cause of your pregnancy, but I won’t be a cause of your baby coming into the world.  You’re going to be the only individual involved who made a choice to have a baby.”

“As I see it,” replies Maria, “your argument confuses the issue of causality with the issue of choice.  Both are relevant to the situation, but they need to be distinguished carefully.  Maybe I’ll be the only person who decides ‘I want to have this baby.’  But that’s hardly the same as saying I’m the only cause of the child’s existence.  As DNA testing would show, you are intimately involved in the causal chain that culminates in childbirth.  If I do give birth, will it make any sense for you to claim that you were a cause of my pregnancy but not of my baby?”

George pushes the issue.  “But the baby is yet to be created.  It doesn’t exist yet.  Only an embryo exists.  You alone will make the decision to create a child.”

“Well, no,” says Maria.  “You and I  together created something which may grow into a child.  And I alone will decide whether to let that growth continue or not.  Insofar as ‘creation’ is involved, the most creative act in the causal sequence has already occurred, when my egg was fertilized and the genetic elements recombined.  What will happen from here on is an automatic continuous process of growth.  I can’t at this point ‘decide to create’ because my body’s process of creation is already running at full speed like a runaway train.  The decision I actually have at this point is not whether to ‘create a child,’ but whether to destroy an embryo, whether to throw a switch to derail that train before it reaches its destination.  A failure to abort will not render me the child’s sole creator.”

            George presses on, “I might concede to you these precise niceties of biological causation, but what we’re really concerned with here is legal and ethical responsibility, and ethics is concerned with voluntary action not with automatic biological action, so shouldn’t the legally responsible individual be the only person who was in a position to make a voluntary choice about whether to have a baby?”

Maria replies:  “Well, I’m glad you’re contemplating an admission of your causal role, but let’s look at this issue of voluntary action.  As I recall you took a voluntary and very active part in getting me into bed.  Remember?”

            “Distinctly,” says George.  “As for your own acquiescence, that was voluntary, wasn’t it?”

            “Of course,” says Maria.  “And it was all thoroughly enjoyable, I must say.  But our shared behavior has had a consequence.  Granted, so far the consequence is a pregnancy, and not a birth.  But the eventual consequence, unless I do something to stop it, will naturally be a birth.”

            “You can erase that consequence,” says George.  “It will be as if I never got you pregnant.  You have the power to nullify the causal impact of my previous choice.  You can undo what we did.”

            “Sort of,” says Maria.  “But what if I don’t?  Then, as far as I can see, the situation remains as it is – a consequence of our voluntary joining.”

            “Also of your decision not to abort,” insists George.

            “Okay,” says Maria.  “I get two decisions, you get one.  Does that mean you’ll at least accept one third responsibility here?”

            “You can nullify my contribution!” exclaims George.

            “But if I don’t,” says Maria, “then your contribution’s not nullified, is it?”

            “It’s ethically nullified even if it’s not biologically nullified,” asserts George.

            “I don’t see why,” says Maria.

            “I can see I’m not making much headway here,” says George, “and it’s exasperating because I’m the one who’s standing up for autonomy for women.  I’m the one encouraging you to take full responsibility for your own body and your own actions.  I respect your freedom.  Have the baby, if that’s what you want to do.  Raise the child however you choose.  You will not be beholden to me in any way.   You will not be dependent on money from me to support yourself and the child. You will not have to answer to me about how you care for the child.  You will not have to arrange your schedule to allow me visitation time with the child.”

            “Thank you for your concern for my autonomy,” says Maria.  “It feels a little bit funny to me, to hear you talk so staunchly about autonomy, when I’m pregnant by you.  I mean, it was in a context of consenting adults and all that, but to me it was very much a ceding of autonomy, in a limited and temporary way.  I don’t mean that as a bad thing.  I mean, if I put myself under a surgeon’s care and he anesthetizes me and cuts me open, that’s a rather drastic, though again limited and temporary, ceding of autonomy.  And if he removes my ruptured appendix and saves my life, then it was a good thing, wasn’t it, to temporarily surrender my body to his control?”

            “You sure didn’t look anesthetized to me,” says George.

            “I was awake and aware,” says Maria.  “Maybe my thinking was a bit hazy, but wasn’t yours clouded too?  Strong attraction can do that, and we’d both had a glass of wine as well.  Anyway, unlike the hypothetical surgeon who was supposed to take something out, you left something inside me.”

            “It was in a context of free and independent judgment,” insists George.

            “Of course it was,” says Maria.  “I’m not talking about the context of the act.  I’m talking about the act itself.”

            “All right,” says George.   “I know what you’re talking about.  But that’s neither here nor there right now.  I’m talking about your current situation, that’s the context in which I am standing up for your autonomy and insisting that you should not be financially beholden to me.”

            Maria sighed.  “But I wouldn’t be looking for support for me, just for my child.  I know that can be a gray area, but I can promise you that I’d be very careful about only spending the money on the child.  I’d be glad to show the bills to you.  You know, if I have a baby, I think it’s inevitable that I will actually have to give up a certain amount of my own autonomy.  There’s something Ayn Rand said that keeps running through my mind: ‘When you bring children into the world, you give up your own sovereignty and become a means to an end; the end, the primary concern, are the children.’” ["Age of Mediocrity", Objectivist Forum, June 1981 v2n3]

            “She said that?” asks George.

            “Look it up,” says Maria.

            George looks it up.  “Hmm.  So she did.  But listen to this, from the same article.  ‘[P]arenthood is an enormous responsibility; it is an impossible responsibility for young people who are ambitious and struggling, but poor…’”

            “Read a little further,” says Maria, quoting, “‘The situation of an unwed mother, abandoned by her lover, is even worse.’  Are you going to abandon me, George?”

            “Look, Maria,” says George, “we’re not going to get anywhere by firing isolated snippets of Rand back and forth at each other.  The whole point of this passage is that people in our situation are much better off aborting!  And that brings me to my final word on this topic, which is that the only reasonable assumption for me, when we first made love, was that you were planning to abort if you somehow got pregnant.”

            “Somehow?” asks Maria.  “We had unprotected sex.  No somehow about it.  You really can’t even call it an accident, can you?  After all, reproduction is one of the natural functions of sex.  If you don’t do anything to interfere, you can’t be too surprised when it happens.”

            “Okay,” says George, “I thought you were probably on the pill or something.  Obviously I was wrong about that.  But putting aside all issues of birth control, I still say that the only reasonable assumption for a man in my position is that the woman will abort.”

            “It’s an assumption that will periodically turn out to be wrong,” says Maria.  “Wouldn’t it be even more reasonable to assume that the woman might abort but also might choose to carry the baby to term?  Wouldn’t that be the safer assumption?”

            “That’s no assumption at all,” says George.  “That’s just an obvious statement of the two possibilities.”

            Maria laughs.  “True enough.  But then why does the man need to make any assumption at all about what the woman will do?  Why not just stick with the obvious fact that she can choose either way?”

            “But it’s totally unreasonable,” says George, “for you to keep this baby!”

            “Previously we were talking about what it was reasonable for you to assume,” says Maria.  “Now we’re talking what it’s reasonable for me to do.  That’s not exactly the same sense of reasonable.”

            “Maybe not,” says George.  “But I’d say it’s perfectly reasonable for me to assume that you will be reasonable.”

            “Well,” says Maria, “let’s explore what your options were.  Before we made love, we did spend some time talking together.  Which suggests that if you’d wanted to you could have come right out and asked me about whether I was using birth control and whether I was likely to abort or not.”

            “Yes,” says George.  “I could have asked you about those things.  Really that would have been the better thing to do.”

            “Ah,” says Maria.  “So asking would have been even more reasonable and responsible than assuming.  So this assuming thing is a kind of second-best reasonable.  So I ask you, does it ever make sense to choose the less reasonable of two alternatives?  And while you’re thinking that one over, just tell me this:  Why didn’t you choose to ask me about birth control and abortion?  You must have had a reason.  Or are you going to tell me that you were so swept up with passion that you didn’t have a single thought about those topics?”

            “Well,” says George, “I’m glad you mention passion because I think that did have something to do with it.  I’m afraid my judgment was a bit clouded by strong desire at the time.”

            “You let your heart overrule your head?” asks Maria.

            “I’d guess it was surging hormones that ran interference,” says George.

            “How did this interference work?” asks Maria.  “You didn’t have any condoms, I suppose?”

            “No,” says George.  “I didn’t.

            “But you wanted me there and then,” says Maria.

            “Yes, I did,” says George.

            “Discussions about contraception sometimes break the mood,” says Maria.  “Discussions about abortion are even more likely to do so.  You wouldn’t have wanted to break the mood, because your chance to have sex with me depended on my being in the mood.  What’s more, a discussion about contraception might very well have led to a trip in search of an all night drug store, an uncertain pursuit which might again have broken the mood, and would certainly have sent you out into the cold night air when all you wanted was to get warm with me.  Last but not necessarily least, many men dislike condoms and prefer the direct feel of skin to skin.  All these are things that might have flashed through your mind as counterweights to your ethical impulse to have a responsible discussion before we made love.”

            “Some of that sounds vaguely familiar,” says George.  “But as I said, my judgment was clouded.”

            “Right,” says Maria.  “So you made assumptions, and you regard that as ethically relevant, because you take it to mean that you had no way to foresee the current situation.  But all you had to do was ask.  It was easy to foresee.  And a man should be responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his actions.”

            “You know,” says George, “I’m really tired of talking about me, and every little mistake I may have made.  I think it’s time to talk about you, and the fact that it’s completely unreasonable for a woman in your situation to keep a baby.”

            “Do you remember,” asks Maria, “saying earlier that hormones clouded your judgment that night?  Have you considered that pregnancy causes major changes in a woman’s hormonal balance?”

            “Your hormones won’t let you abort?” asks George skeptically.

            “All I’m saying is that the prospect of letting this child be born, and then taking care of it are suddenly strangely attractive to me.”

            “It’s just an emotional projection, a fantasy.  You should put it out of your mind.”

            “Why else do people have children nowadays?” asks Maria.  “It’s not to get help with the farm work.  It’s for emotional fulfillment.  From a strictly financial standpoint they’re mostly liabilities, at least until they’re grown.”

            “Tell me about it,” says George.

            “What if I was a wealthy forty-five year old widow,” asks Maria, “who always wanted to be a mother but who never had been able to conceive before?  Would it be completely unreasonable for me to keep the baby then?”

            “Maybe not then,” concedes George.  “But then you wouldn’t need any support from me, would you?  That wouldn’t be the same situation as you’re in.”

            “Let me remind you of your own position,” says Maria.  “You said it was fair for a man to assume, in lieu of asking, that a woman would abort.”

            “Let me revise my position,” says George.  “I think it’s fair for a man to assume, in lieu of asking, that a woman would abort if she didn’t have sufficient means of her own to support the child.  If she wants the child, and can afford it, she can have it.  But then it’s her business, not his.  He has no interest in it and no claim upon it.  It’s just as if he were a sperm donor.”

             “As if!” exclaims Maria.  “Sperm donation involves, for starters, signed agreements on both sides.  To say nothing of the fact that sperm donation takes place with artificial insemination and mutual anonymity.  It’s about as different as could be from what happened between us.”

            George shrugs.  “We’ve already beaten the explicit agreement angle to death.  So lets glance at these other differences.  I don’t see why they’re relevant to the issue at hand.”

            “Oddly enough,” begins Maria, “the only purpose of sperm donation is the creation of children.  What would it mean without explicit agreements and special protections?  That is, what would it mean if you showed up at my door with a vial of your semen, looking to apply it inside me, and I let you do it?  Would you tell me then that you assumed I would abort?”

            “Mmm,” muses George.  “Maybe that’s not such a good example.”

            “Perhaps not,” says Maria.  “Now permit me to draw a fine distinction.  It’s one thing to not want a child to be born.  It’s quite another to take no interest in your child once it’s born.  Some men have become enraptured with children they didn’t want.”

            “I see the distinction,” says George.  “But I can assure you that I will want nothing to do with this child if it’s ever born.”

            “Of course on your theory,” Maria suggests, “it’s strictly the mother’s business, so it’s strictly her decision whether you would be allowed to see or visit such a child.”

            “That’s right,” says George.

            “So,” continues Maria, “if an unmarried father wanted to visit his child and the mother said no, it would just be too damned bad.”

            “That’s right,” agrees George.  “Unless they had made an agreement to the contrary, of course.  Why would an unmarried man ever imagine he had such a right?”

            “For the same reason,” says Mary, “that the mother has rights to the child.  Namely, that he and she are the creators of the child.”

            “But the woman’s autonomy…” begins George.

            “Is no more relevant than the man’s once the baby has left her body,” declares Maria.  “We say a woman has the right to control her own body.  It hardly follows that she has the right to keep a father from meeting his newborn child, now does it?”

            “I haven’t thought of it that way before,” says George.  “But where would any right to supervise or visit come from?  I can understand how a single man might be obliged to provide support for a child, at least if he had promised such support as an encouragement to the mother, thereby inducing her to thrust the helpless child into a perilous world. But what would that have to do with visitation rights?”

            “Well,” says Maria, “perhaps you’re thinking too strictly in terms of the analogy presented in a lecture by Will Thomas [7/98 IOS Summer Seminar].  I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard he likened birth to an act of putting another person, namely the child, into a perilous condition, namely infancy.  From this, he reasoned that whoever had placed the baby in the peril of helpless existence had taken on a moral obligation to care for the baby until it was no longer helpless.  Anyway, I’d say this is fine as far as it goes, but no analogy is ever complete.  What this one fails to account for is why it is the right of the parents to care for the child.  What if another couple approached and demanded to be allowed to adopt the child, using the argument that they were in a position to provide the child with a better upbringing?  Imagine a biological parent arguing: ‘I put the child in this state of peril, so it’s my right to raise him out of it.’  Placing someone in peril might give you an obligation to help a person, but it would never give you the right to supervise that person.  But the so-called predicament we’re talking about is really just a normal stage of human life.  The harm’s way we’re talking about is simply the entry into existence.  It’s the gift of life.”

            “You talk like a poet,” says George.  “Listen, let me try a different approach.  If I sneeze on you and give you a cold you don’t hold me legally responsible, do you?”

            “A weak analogy, on several points,” says Maria.  “First, sneezing is involuntary, making love to me was voluntary.  Second, infecting friends is an accidental byproduct of the natural function of sneezing, but making babies is one of the natural functions of lovemaking.  Third, pregnancy is not an illness.  Fourth, sneezing doesn’t create a new person.  After all, the huge potential responsibility we’re arguing about isn’t to me.  It’s to a new person altogether.”

            “Let me try an argument from fairness,” says George.  “How can it be fair that you make the decision that determines whether I’ll have to pay?”

            “There’s a division of labor in human reproduction,” says Maria.  “It’s not always fair.  But we women are the ones who risk our lives.  Is it really so bad that we get one more option than you?  Maybe you should be glad that you’re in the division that never goes through labor.”

            “Okay.  I give up,” exclaims George.  “Do whatever the hell you want!”

            “Thanks,” says Maria.  “I will.  Probably I’ll have that abortion.”

            “What?” sputters George.  “You told me you didn’t know what you were going to do.”

            “I didn’t,” says Maria.  “I don’t.  But I’m leaning towards aborting.  I’ve got an appointment at the clinic tomorrow.”

            “Oh.  Why didn’t you tell me?” asks George.

            “You never got around to asking,” says Maria.

            “Why are you leaning towards abortion?” asks George.

            “I don’t think I’m ready to be the kind of mother I want to be,” says Maria.  “And I can see you’re not ready to be the kind of father I would want for my child.”

            “Hey!” exclaims George.

            “I’m not saying you’re not a great guy,” says Maria.  “I think very highly of you.  But there’s no way you’re ready for fatherhood.”

            “No,” says George.  “I’m not.”

            “I do have one more question to ask.”

            “What’s that?”

            “Would you come with me to the clinic tomorrow?  I think it will be easier with you holding my hand.”

“Of course.”