Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Autonomy, Father's Rights, and the State's Role

As a result of my "question of the day," I entered into what I thought was an interesting and fruitful discussion with blog reader, Darren. So, I will reproduce it here.

Darren writes:

I guess part of my discomfort is with your use of the word 'autonomy'. As soon as either marriage (or commitment of any kind) or childrearing is involved, then people are giving up some of their autonomy. Hopefully, they are doing so because they get more out of it than they are giving up (I know I do), but part of being in a family means that you are not completely autonomous.

Put another way, I wonder how many people would describe forcing a father to pay child support (especially a father who does not get the visitation rights he desires) as forcing him to "give up autonomy"? I know I wouldn't, but is the situation really all that different?

Let me just say again that I think there are good reasons for society to legally allow women to "opt out" of being a mother by having an abortion but not to legally allow men to "opt out" of being a father if the mother does not want to do so. But, despite these good reasons, it is still an assymetry that makes me a bit uncomfortable, and I don't think that the issues about spousal notification are as easy as a lot of people are implying they are, unless you are just leaving fathers' (and potential fathers') rights out of the equation.

I'll also have to think about your claim that most laws treat people as adults who would make the best decisions when left on their own. Even if they should do this, I can think of several other examples of laws that do not treat people in this way. Hmm.

If you have the stamina to read a long post (that is, if you got this far), here is my response to Darren. I might have made a few changes to make it, hopefully, more intelligible.

First of all, you talk about how we all give up autonomy in relationships. I think that is true. I think in fact that we are less autonomous than our institutions suggest we are. Certainly we have long periods of our life where we are not capable of making good decisions and need others to help us or do it for us. Also, we may get ill, suffer from a trauma, lose our cognitive faculties, etc. and need help again.

But, before I continue, I should give an account of what I mean by autonomy: the ability to make good choices by virtue of your own capacities. That doesn't preclude that you would consider the good advice from others, or that you would discount people who are directly affected by your decisions. What I mean by supporting an individual's autonomy is that you trust that most people are mature enough to be able to reach good decisions without the state always prescribing what those good decisions should be. Autonomy assumes that a mature person will take into consideration how others are affected, how this impacts my relationships, and what good advice others can lend me.

I don't think that being autonomous means "I don't have to listen to anyone else or consider the feelings of others." If someone had that view, we should be quite concerned about their level of maturity and hence if they are in fact autonomous, right?

So, perhaps we are having a disagreement because you think my definition of autonomy looks more like selfishnness, radical individualism, or solipsism. And, I don't think that is what autonomy means.

Now, to your second point about Father's rights. I absolutely think it is crucial to consider the rights of fathers when a woman is considering an abortion. I think a mature, responsible female should consult the father before deciding to abort. Again, to do so is to act with moral maturity, with autonomy. If a woman simply makes the decision without considering the father, assuming that she is not endangered by the father, she has acted both irresponsibly and immorally.

So, the question is, is that what women are essentially like?

If we look at the data of who gets abortions and why, do we see a picture emerging of selfish women who do not want to be burdened by the pregnancy and hence wholly reject what the man thinks or his right to say something?(I know, I have left this a rhetorical question, quite risky of me). If that is typically the case, then I think it might make more sense to judge women as having little to no autonomy(if we mean by this that they are morally immature). Women would start to look like Selfish bitches, wouldn't they. And, they would start to look irresponsible, unthoughtful and unlikely to make good decisions. I don't think that is what the data bears out however.

I want to say someting about your comment that father's rights do not seem symmetrical to mother's rights. (I think that is your point). If you are claiming this, then I think we disagree about mother's and father's rights.

I don't think that the relationship to the fetus is symmetrical or that institutionally/socially we hold mother's and father's accountable in the same ways for misbehaved or poorly raised children. Women are going to have to do most of the labor with the child during pregnancy and nursing etc. That is just a biological reality. And, to have the state "force" women to carry out their pregnancy and force them to have a lifelong relationship to another human being because the father wants the child is, in my book, wrong.

The father has rights. The father's views are very important. But, the father and mother's relationship to the child is NOT symmetrical. And, to act like it is, is to ignore both biological and social reality.

Finally, to your point that we do have some laws that seem to treat people less than autonomously. My answer is, that when we have those laws, like speeding limits, drinking ages, etc., the rationale for their existence is that most people don't make good choices here and we need these laws to counteract that. If we make abortion illegal and criminalize it, then we better be able to show that women simply act immaturely and the only way to remedy this is to have the state intervene because women, as a class, are incapable of acting maturely.