On this Father's Day, it may be time to rethink the question of a father's rights and responsibilities, to take some of our most cherished and unexamined slogans and see if they are fair. (This is a dangerous prospect: Obviously there is a reason that we cherish and don't examine our slogans.) Take for instance the idea of "a woman's right to choose." I believe absolutely that a woman should decide whether to terminate or go forward with a pregnancy. The man's opinion is only secondary, and if there is a conflict, entirely negligible.
But is this fair? The social scientist Dalton Conley wrote a provocative op-ed, "A Man's Right to Choose," in the New York Times on this subject a few years ago. He wrote, "But when men and women engage in sexual relations both parties recognize the potential for creating life. If both parties willingly participate then shouldn't both have a say in whether to keep a baby that results?"
His reasoning sounds sensible, but the practical question of what to do if they violently disagree seems to demand a more tangible plan for resolution, and it's this I discussed with him over coffee recently. As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine I was having an irresolvable conflict with a man over an accidental pregnancy. I told Conley I just don't see a compromise: It has to be the woman's choice.
He said, "Then the man shouldn't be responsible for the baby." Earlier in our conversation, Conley had said he is drawn to taboo, to getting people to re-examine received wisdom. I thought some more about this hypothetical baby. "You are asking people not just to rethink things but to refeel them."
He said, "Well, I am asking people to put aside their feelings and think in a more rational way."
Here is another way to frame the problem: Legally a woman should have a right to choose, but morally, the territory is more shadowy. Should a man have no say at all in whether one night in bed with someone ends in a child?
Maybe we can assert that the woman should have the ultimate legal right to choose, but at the same time admit that right is very complicated and charged and morally fraught, that choosing something against the will of the man involved is an act of some degree of unfairness; it may be a necessary act but not an entirely unambiguous one.
Our tendency is to give to the pregnant woman the moral high ground, whatever she chooses, but there may be a more honest, rigorous interpretation that does not involve high ground and instead involves the ambiguous murk in which most of the rest of our lives take place.
The problem Conley isolates in the absoluteness of the slogan "a woman's right to choose" is in the tone, a certain tenor of self-congratulation, a politically charged certainty, a lack of tolerance for the thorniness and moral challenges of the statement.
(In a later qualification and explanation in the Huffington Post, Conley retreated from the more concrete, prescriptive parts of his argument, such as this passage from his New York Times op-ed: "If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create." That point conjured images of women chained to a bed forced to continue a pregnancy against their will, and he hadn't meant it. He was writing in the tricky polemical territory of provocation, of engendering a conversation where there is none.)
In a certain sense, all of this was simpler in the days when a baby was simply an accepted risk of sex — if everyone knew and understood and agreed that if you fell into bed with someone there might be a baby (or, if it was 1890, that you might die in childbirth). But now, after Roe vs. Wade, and in what John Updike once called our "post-pill paradise," most liberal youngish people don't accept that idea, and operate under the general assumption, after a couple of glasses of wine, that you can go home with someone and not end up with 18 years of bills for diapers and babysitters and Lego ninjas.
One of Conley's more whimsical solutions to this impasse, in the conversation we had about it, was that people should download an app, a sort of contract before having sex, in which they agree to what they would do if a baby were conceived. This seems impractical, as well as anti-romantic and anti-aphrodisiac. There are some things that are better left not talked about, and what you would do if you accidentally conceived a child seems like it might be one of them.
However it's hard to entirely dismiss Conley's argument, based as he says on Enlightenment ideas linking rights and responsibilities, that if the man has no say whatsoever in whether the baby is born, he shouldn't be held responsible for child support. This is another idea that comes up against absolutes that many of us would find hard to surrender: Namely that a man is financially responsible for his child. However, is that always and ubiquitously fair?
Again, in a practical world how could we enforce the idea that a man who didn't really want a child wasn't responsible for the child? How many deadbeat dads would step forward with their reluctance, their ambivalence, as a way to worm their way out of responsibility?
It is very hard to see how this could be written into law, the didn't-want-him argument, without wide-scale abuse and harm to the children involved. On the other hand, it might be reasonable to recognize that there is a certain amount of unfairness at play. There is the possibility that a woman who has a baby against a man's will should in some moral, if not legal universe, claim financial responsibility for that child.
Now that the majority of babies born to women under 30 are born to single mothers, the real-world corollaries of these abstractions are going to come up more and more. As the complicated or messy circumstances become more common, the questions arising from them need to be, if not answered, then at least asked.
Katie Roiphe, professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of "Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages," and the forthcoming "In Praise of Messy Lives." © 2012 Slate