Can a Father Terminate His Parental Rights?
Some fathers do not want to be fathers and do not want to pay child support
Should fathers be allowed to terminate their own parental rights? Can they?
Courts gave a preference to fathers for child custody until the mid-1800s because the law considered children property. Around 1850, most states switched to favoring the mother under the tender-years doctrine.
Today, mothers and fathers are supposed to have equal parental rights.
Legal custody rights include making decisions regarding child's health, safety, education and general welfare.
And unless a court order states otherwise, parents should have equal access to their children.
However, equal parental rights do not translate to equal outcomes. Many fathers still claim courts are biased against them in child custody decisions because they are men. Fathers also sometimes claim they do not get child support like mothers do.
For instance, approximately 52% of all custodial mothers have child support agreements compared to 31% of custodial fathers.
This all gave rise to a "father's rights" movement many years ago.
This discontent with the legal system and a belief a father should not be "forced" to be a father or pay child support has led to many fathers believing they should be able to relinquish their parental rights.
But can they? Let us get into this topic in more detail.
This article is not legal advice.
The Argument for Elective Parental Rights and Responsibilities
Raising a child is expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally taxing.
On average, by the time their child turns 18, parents spend $284,570 on childcare.
This cost is more than the average house price in thirty-three states.
Here is what fathers and their advocates argue.
We Face an Underpopulation Issue
America currently faces underpopulation due to record low birth rates.
Almost three in five childless millennials report not having kids because of the costs associated with raising children.
For these reasons, some argue allowing someone who does not want to be a father to end the legal parent-child relationship voluntarily makes space for someone else to step in and fulfill the role of a devoted and responsible parent.
This may be a foster parent, adoptive parent, or legal guardian who could provide the attention, emotional support, and financial security that a child requires.
The argument has many detractors, as we detail more below.
Financial Support Should be a Choice
Karen DeCrow once said, "…if a woman makes a unilateral decision to bring pregnancy to term, and the biological father does not, and cannot, share in this decision, he should not be liable for 21 years of support."
DeCrow, feminist attorney turned men's rights activist, argued that women should not expect men to finance their choice to have a child.
Former Brown University professor, Frances Goldscheider, coined the term "financial abortion."
The argument goes like this: a pregnant woman must notify the father as soon as she is aware of her pregnancy so the father can decide within a reasonable time if he wants to take on the legal rights and responsibilities of fatherhood.
Mel Feit, former director of the National Center for Men, argued that men are "forced to be financially responsible for choices only women are permitted to make" and "forced to relinquish reproductive choice."
In the high-profile case, Dubay v. Wells, the plaintiff father argued that men should have the right to opt-out of parenthood the same way women do.
Put differently, those who advance this argument claim financial abortion and aborting a fetus are analogous.
Like Dubay, proponents of financial abortion believe that denying a man the option to forego fatherhood is fundamentally unfair and consenting to sex does not mean consenting to become a parent.
The Opposition Says That is Nonsense
Put simply, the other side argues men do not have the right to "financially abort" their children.
Many opponents, including the National Organization for Women's former president, Kim Gandy, viewed the proposal as a novel attempt by men to evade responsibility for their children.
The judges in Dubay v. Wells rejected the argument that a woman's right to abortion and a man's right to opt-out of fatherhood are equivalent. That is partly because equal reproductive rights for men and women are not feasible.
Abortion deals with whether a fetus should develop into a living child. Once born, the child's right to financial support from his or her father (and mother) should eclipse the father's convenience.
Additionally, a child's conception results from both parents procreating.
Therefore, both parents should assume responsibility for the child they created.
We wonder if the men who staunchly advocate for financial abortion would feel the same if they were the ones who became pregnant and had to carry a child approximately 9 months to term? But that is a question for another time.
Personal responsibility and reproduction
Susan Appleton, a Washington University School of Law professor, writes about personal responsibility and reproduction.
She argues that men like Dubay assume the risk of parenthood when they consensually engage in heterosexual sex without contraception and ejaculate.
In Utah, this responsibility may begin while the baby is in utero. Utah fathers may soon be legally required to pay half a mother's prenatal care and delivery cost.
Men adverse to fatherhood like Dubay can abstain from heterosexual sex or use contraception like a vasectomy.
Abortion is also not a "get out of jail free card" for women
Additionally, women have many reasons for aborting a child beyond opting out of motherhood, such as protecting their health and safety.
For instance, a strong relationship exists between unwanted pregnancy and intimate partner violence.
A woman may abort out of fear of her abuser and against her own wishes.
Current Legal Landscape
Each State's laws are going to be different. We will generally speak to California law.
In California, termination of parental rights happens through a court order. However, a father cannot simply walk into court and ask for the court to terminate his parental rights. The person who usually seeks a termination of parental rights is the other parent (in our hypothetical, the mother).
This is most common when the father has abandoned the child and the mother wants the child adopted by someone else.
That is not the only way it happens, but it may be the most common.
The documents filed with the court must request termination of parental rights under California Family Code section 7820 and cite one or more of the following: abandonment, neglect or cruelty, substance abuse or moral depravity, a parent's felony conviction, a parent declared developmentally disabled or mentally ill, or a mentally-disabled parent.
The rules are complex, and nobody should try this without a lawyer's representation.
Are These Rules Too Rigid?
Fathers argue this rigid process keeps some children and non-childbearing parents trapped in a dynamic that does not serve either party's best interests.
For instance, studies have found a father's absence increases adolescents' risky behavior, such as smoking and teen pregnancy.
Although no state has adopted financial abortion, some states have increased a father's authority in family planning.
For instance, two Tennessee lawmakers introduced a bill that would permit a father to deny a mother's abortion without exception for sexual assault or incest. But that is Tennessee and that is a discussion for another time.
Where Does that Leave Fathers?
Nobody can make a father be a father. Forcing someone to exercise parenting time is not practical, even if it was legal.
But having children means being financially responsible for them.
Sex sometimes leads to babies. Babies, from minute 1 to year 18, are expensive and they do not become cheaper after they become adults.
Fathers may learn a lot by visiting a reproductive health clinic like Planned Parenthood or an on-campus health center.
If fathers whose initial instinct is to not be involved educated themselves more on the subject of raising a child and supporting them, that may change their perspective.
They may even find themselves wanting to be part of a child's life.