In the comments to another thread, “Ed” – whose views are typical of many Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), although I don’t know if Ed himself identifies as an MRA – writes:
It’s true that some women have “tricked” men into fatherhood and child support – for example, the 1997 case of State of Louisiana v. Frisard, in which a woman gave oral sex to a man wearing a condom, and then secretly used the sperm in the condom to get pregnant. (The courts decided that Mr. Frisard was liable for child support, a result I find appalling). (For more information about Frisard and some similar cases, see this article).
But even acknowledging that such cases happen, that still doesn’t support the idea that child support payments significantly motivate women to “trick” men into involuntary fatherhood. In the Frisard case, it appears the woman was motivated by a desire for motherhood, and so would probably have acted the same way even if no child support laws exist.
Do women seek pregnancy in order to get the financial benefits of child support, as David suggests?
And who has the most incentive to prevent pregnancy, women or men?
I’d say women do. Women, after all, face the risks and physical burdens of pregnancy, and (if they wind up collecting child support) face not only the financial expense but the enormous workload of raising a child – a workload that will make much more difficult, and possibly entirely derail, any other plans the woman had for her life. The workload, unlike the expense, is not split with another adult. On the other hand, for those women who want to be mothers, that could be an incentive in favor of getting pregnant.
Next to all that, the benefit of receiving child support is so minor that I wouldn’t expect it to have a significant effect on women’s incentives.
Many MRAs – and Ed, if I’ve understood him correctly – believe that child support laws give women a strong incentive to get pregnant and thus “trap” men into financially supporting them. Furthermore, many MRAs seem to believe that there is very little men can do to prevent pregnancy (hence the frequent claim made by MRAs supporting “choice for men” that all reproductive decisions are made by women).
This is a conflict, between what many MRAs believe and what many feminists believe. Is there any way we can settle this conflict empirically?
I believe there is.
Not all states have the same child support laws. In some states, the child support laws are relatively weak; noncustodial parents don’t pay much, and can relatively easily get away with defaulting on child support payments – or can depend on never being identified as the father at all. Other states have higher child support awards, laws that aggressively establish paternity, and collection techniques that make defaulting unlikely (such as garnishing child support from paychecks).
If the MRAs are correct, then states with strong child support laws will have higher rates of single motherhood, due to more women – tempted by the prospect of well-enforced child support awards – choosing to trick men into getting them pregnant.
If I’m correct, however, then states with weak child support laws will have higher rates of single motherhood, because while women’s incentives aren’t changed much by child support laws, a significant number of men are less motivated to avoid pregnancy if they think they can get off the hook.
So what do studies comparing how weak and strong child support laws effect single motherhood find? It’s men, not women, who have their incentives changed by child support laws. The stronger child support laws are, the lower the rate of single motherhood.
Robert Plotnick, of the University of Washington, published a study in 2005 which included a brief review of the literature.
Huang (2002) and Plotnick et al. (2004) use micro-data to examine the effect of child support enforcement on nonmarital childbearing. Both use the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to analyze the likelihood that a woman’s first birth is premarital. Focusing on the teenage years, Plotnick et al. (2004) finds that young women living in states with higher rates of paternity establishment are less likely to become unwed teenage mothers. Because of the nature of the NLSY and the focus on teenage behavior, the study examines behavior during 1979-1984. Huang (2002) examines 20 years of data and different indicators of support enforcement. He reports similar relationships when women are age 20 or older but, unlike Plotnick et al., not when they are teenagers.
Plotnick’s 2005 study (which is described, and available for download, here) replicated the earlier studies’ findings.
What does this mean?
It could mean, as I believe, that women already have such strong incentives to avoid pregnancy, that child support awards (which are, typically, not all that generous) don’t significantly alter the equation for most women.
However, it is also possible that Ed is correct, and that child support laws do strongly increase women’s incentive to get pregnant. However, this is only possible if we assume that men’s incentives to avoid pregnancy are even more strongly increased – so that even though women are trying harder to entrapt men into paying child support, men are nonetheless successful in preventing pregnancy, despite women’s increased efforts. So the MRA belief that women are motivated by child support payments into trapping men, ironically can only be rescued by giving up the MRA belief that men are not able to prevent pregnancy from happening.
The empirical evidence is clear: the net effect of child support laws isn’t that women get pregnant more often to collect on child support. Rather, the stronger child support laws are, the more men work at avoiding pregnancy.