I came across two different pieces today – both relating to fathers – and were I in a cynic, I’d say that by reading both of these, one might conclude that there are two kinds of men: those who will do almost anything to be fathers, and those who run away from fatherhood.
But I’m no cynic.
The first item that caught my eye was a Father’s Day article in the Sunday Telegraph by none other than the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. He used the occasion to talk about the importance of fatherhood, and the importance of good parenting.
Can’t take issue with that.
Then, he took the opportunity to lash out at fathers who renege on their parental responsibilities:
… But I also know this: in Britain today, there are children growing up who will never see the benefit of this – who will never know the love of a father. And we know, too, the consequences of that. When fathers aren’t there for their kids, those children are more likely to live in poverty, fail at school, end up in prison and be unemployed later in life…
… At the same time, I also think we need to make Britain a genuinely hostile place for fathers who go AWOL. It’s high time runaway dads were stigmatised, and the full force of shame was heaped upon them. They should be looked at like drink drivers, people who are beyond the pale. They need the message rammed home to them, from every part of our culture, that what they’re doing is wrong – that leaving single mothers, who do a heroic job against all odds, to fend for themselves simply isn’t acceptable.
At first read, I thought to myself, that this sounds like a good idea.
One of the more common queries I get from mothers is what to do when fathers do not exercise visitation rights, or exercise them infrequently. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer, and can only respond that you can’t force a parent to behave like a parent, you can’t force a parent to spend time with his or her child.
Upon refection what seems like a noble idea – stigmatizing these fathers – is actually simplistic and ignores the root causes of the lack of contact. Assuming that there is not parental alienation on the part of the custodial parent, there are non-custodial parents, usually fathers, who are unsure of how to deal with their new status as part-time parents, parents who only see their children every few days, and perhaps not in their own home.
It can be a demoralizing and debasing experience, so the real effort needs to be not necessarily in stigmatizing but in helping people adjust to their new roles, and making visitation schedules that take take these difficulties into account. I am not suggesting that I fully understand the roots of this complex problem, but certainly simply stigmatizing those who engage in the behaviour is not sufficient to address the issue, and may in fact, in some individuals, exacerbate the father’s distance from his children.
I do agree with the honorable Prime Minister that failure to pay child support should in fact be socially unacceptable. Zero-tolerance for leaving your kids in a home where the mother cannot meet their needs because dad has decided to check out.
And for his finale, Mr. Cameron concludes:
I say this knowing how difficult being a parent is. As the American writer Kent Nerburn brilliantly put it: “It is much easier to become a father than to be one.” And I don’t for one minute claim to be a perfect father to my kids. Just ask Sam. But this is too important an issue to remain silent on. This is about our children’s futures, and with that, our country’s future too. We owe it to them to be there for them, however hard we may find it.
So on this Father’s Day, let’s embrace and celebrate the responsibilities we have.
Well, the next piece, a recent decision by Judge Yosef Shapiro of the Jerusalem District Court, shows that sometimes, despite Mr. Nerburn’s observation, it’s not even that easy to become a father, or at least not to father a child with the woman of your choice.
The petition was filed by a woman who sought permission for her undergo IVF using a sperm donor who was both known to her and married to another woman; in plain words, from her married lover.
She needed to go to court because the position of the hospital involved and the Ministry of Health, was that she needed to inform the man’s wife of the IVF and at least hear her position on the matter.
Both sides’ arguments were rather lengthy, but briefly, the woman claimed that she has a constitutional right to parenthood, a right already recognized by the Supreme Court, a right to treatment as delineated in the Law of Patients’ Rights, 5756-1996, and that the demand that the wife of her lover be informed was patently unreasonable.
Ultimately, Judge Shapiro ruled that the hospital did not have the right to demand that the wife be informed and to express her opinion on the matter. Without getting into all the details, and without expressing my view about the operative decision, I have the sense that the court was moved very strongly by the constitutional right to be a parent, and a respect for personal autonomy, and thus, failed to explore some of the important ideas the case raises.
The right to parenthood: While the Supreme Court has recognized the right to be a parent as a constitutional right, I think that the question needs to be asked to what extent does the State need to go, and under which circumstances, to allow people the right to parenthood. Do medical and financial resources need to be expended for medical and technological interventions that enable parenthood? To what extent, if any, can social costs play a role in determining a reasonable balance of interests?
Rights of children: One of the rights of children emphasized in the decision is the right of a child to know who his/her parents are, and the right to an identity. In a world in which many (most?) sperm donations are anonymous, are we then violating the rights of these children? There was no discussion of this, nor was there any discussion of studies of children born from anonymous sperm donations and their issues of identity formation.
Traditional notions of medical practice: The petitioner and the court made reference to the Law of Patients’ Rights, and in general, a sick person’s right to treatment. Reading the decision reminded me of a wonderful talk I heard last summer by Rabbi Shabtai Rappaport, when he said that we need to develop new terminology for treatment by doctors, but which is essentially not about healing per se. Rather, we are using medical techniques and expertise not to heal but to make use of various technologies. It would have been nice if the court had thought along these lines, since the argument could be made that a different set of ethics and patient rights should exist when we are dealing with treatments that are not about healing or saving lives.
Finally, the big disappointment of the decision.
One of the reasons the Ministry of Health took the position that the man’s wife should be consulted, was to see the reason the couple was not yet divorced. There is a concern that a man might be withholding a get, and while at the same time starting a new family with another woman.
This claim, the judge rejected, stating:
מכאן, שסכסוך בין בני זוג, אף כאשר יש פסק דין המחייב גירושין, הדרך עלולה להיות ארוכה, ומכאן שאין זו הזירה הראוי לכפוף את התורם ואשתו, לדון או לטעון בדבר אפשרות עיגון
A rough translation of which reads:
From this, the conflict between a couple, even where there is a (rabbinic court) judgment mandating a divorce, the way is liable to be long, and this is not the appropriate arena in which to force the (sperm) donor and is wife, to litigate or to make claims regarding the anchoring of the wife.
That’s all you have to say about this? Sometimes divorce proceedings are liable to be lengthy?
The unwillingness of the court to take into account the imbalance of power in the divorce proceedings, the fact that according to Jewish Law a man who is still married can father a child more or less with impunity, while for a woman to do so will bring disastrous consequences on the child’s head, is a major flaw in the decision.
On one hand there is a lot of rhetoric in the courts in general and even in the legislature about the problems of agunot, on the other hand, recognizing these problems and creating comprehensive social and judicial policies that truly reflect a willingness to fight is still sorely lagging.