I read this week in the New York Times that half of all pregnancies in America are unplanned. Many of the social problems I observe–in family court; in my community; in the media–are the result of people becoming parents when they did not intend to become parents. Not a month goes by when my local paper, The Charleston Post & Courier, doesn’t report some horrific story of parental abuse or neglect, usually from some parent who clearly had no ability to properly parent a child.
As wags often note, we require folks to get a license to drive a car but not to become a parent. This is because driving is considered a “privilege” and not a “right.” Yet try to live in South Carolina without a car and see how well you function: my wife, who managed without a drivers license for 13 years after reaching the age where she could obtain one, decided she needed one within months of our move to downtown Charleston–one of the few locations in South Carolina in which one could conceivably do without a car. I sometimes think that the fact that one needs a license to drive a car is a historical anomaly. Had the car predated John Locke, and the development on an Anglo-Saxon rights culture, driving might well be considered a civil right. What if we treated parenthood rather than driving as something that required a “license?”
I acknowledge the problems that might result from allowing those in power to decide who should be allowed to become a parent. When our first child remained an only child past her seventh birthday, my wife and I would often be told by South of Broad Bluebloods that we were the “right kind of people” to be having more children and I wouldn’t want those Bluebloods deciding who gets to be a parent. In Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927), United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including “mental defectives,” “for the protection and health of the state.” He justified this decision with the infamous phrase, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” This is what happens when the powerful get to decide who is fit to parent.
Yet making sure that folks planned on being parents, and had some idea of what parenting entailed, before they became parents would alleviate many of our social problems. Look how many obstacles are placed in front of folks who want to adopt a child: social worker home studies; guardians ad litem; formal court proceedings. Meanwhile we allow any ole damn fools in the back seat of an automobile to become parents without any government oversight or intervention.
Two of my early blogs, both from the same month, dealt with the issue of how do we get parents to support their children when they likely didn’t intend to become a parent in the first place? The blogs are seemingly contradictory. The first, Irresponsible baby daddies, notes my tremendous sympathy for the frustration single mothers feel when they raise their children without a father’s support. The second, Is the application of civil contempt in South Carolina’s “daddy round-ups” improper?, notes my sympathy for these same fathers and the way the family court uses its contempt powers (I believe improperly) to force them to pay child support. Both stem from my frustration trying to ameliorate the consequences of folks who become parents through reckless sexual behavior.
I am disheartened by the parade of frustrated mothers who aren’t getting their child support. I am disheartened by the parade of fathers, cycling from unemployment to marginal employment, being incarcerated when they fall behind on their support obligations. I am extremely disheartened by the parade of abusive or neglectful parents who continue to have children–often more children than the attorneys who represent them pro bono–while remaining embroiled in the DSS system. And if I find this disheartening, I can only imagine how a family court judge–who sees this misery 50 times as often as I do–feels after a few years on the bench.
The ultimate solution is to strive to make every pregnancy a planned pregnancy. Can one abhor the eugenics language of Buck v. Bell while having sympathy for the idea that society needs some limits on folks becoming parents merely because they have reached sexual maturity? Yet we would have negative population growth if all children were conceived of a desire to have children. Can our species even survive if all pregnancies were planned pregnancies?