The Times

Saturday, November 28, 1998

Mary Ann Sieghart on sex and suing

Women behaving badly

The Times

In the old days, sex was simple. The man did the deed and the woman paid the price. Sex meant pregnancy and pregnancy meant motherhood - either the shameful, single kind or, if the man was honourable, within marriage.

Now life is more complicated. Pregnancies can be terminated, whether the man likes it or not. And mothers can bring up children on their own, again whether the man likes it or not. Women may still bear the physical burden of motherhood, but it is increasingly men who are paying the price.

Only this week, an American, Peter Wallis, sued his former girlfriend for "intentionally acquiring and misusing" his sperm by having a child that he did not want. He claims that she deliberately stopped taking the Pill without telling him. She refused to have an abortion and he is now saddled with the lifelong costs - financial and emotional - of fatherhood.

I know we are supposed to side with our own sex, but here my sympathies lie almost entirely with the father. A lawsuit may be going too far, but what could be worse than becoming a parent against your will? Women who trick their partners into starting a family are dishonest and manipulative. Yet the poor man has no recourse.

Some say that it is his responsibility to ensure that such an "accident" does not happen. He could have worn a condom. That is true, but a relationship in which people are living together, as these two were, presupposes a certain level of trust.

Anyway, this is the same flinty argument used by anti-abortionists to women; that it is their responsibility not to get pregnant in the first place. Most women find this outrageous: they think they should have the right to choose whether or not to give birth.

But what about a man's right to choose? It seems that men no longer have it. They cannot insist that their partners have children. They cannot insist that they do not. They can, of course, take more responsibility for contraception though, in a long-term relationship, most couples prefer the less intrusive female methods.

So men have to rely on their partners' good faith. And if that faith is breached, they can no longer even say to the woman: "You have the child if you want to, but don't involve me." Most Western countries now have child support laws that force fathers to pay up for 18 years even after a one-night stand. Indeed, one American court has ruled that an underage boy seduced by an older woman who was prosecuted for statutory rape was still liable for child support if her crime resulted in the birth of a child. That is clearly ridiculous.

It is reasonable to expect men who have consensual sex to face the risk of contraceptive failure. Technology has not completely divorced sex from pregnancy, even if we like to believe that it has.

But deception is different. Mr Wallis quite understandably feels betrayed and ill-used. And I share his anger when I see women behaving so badly. If we want men to be more equal partners at home, we must surely be prepared to share the most important decision of all - whether or not to bring other people into the world.

Copyright 1998, Times Newspapers Ltd.