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Choice and Children

An early demand of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s was “free abortion on demand.” That later became moderated to “pro-choice,” meaning that a woman should be able to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. The idea of giving people a choice is very American. The movement was part of a wider social upheaval, not just of women, and it strongly connects to the country’s ideals of democracy and liberty. Millions of people were wanting more choice, to break out of the stifling strictures of the past. Minorities wanted to choose to be part of the main stream of life in the U.S., without being trodden down and discriminated against. Young men didn’t want to be cannon fodder in a war that they and many others saw as illegal and immoral. Students wanted more say in their education. Not all of the ways people exercised their new choices were good ones, as time has shown since, but their desire to have more choices in their “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” was overwhelming and a long time coming.

Despite the religiously-based counter-movement calling itself “pro-life,” and thanks to a favorable Supreme Court decision, the idea that a woman should have a right to terminate a pregnancy with an abortion became the law of the land. However, every choice has (and ought to have) other associated things that must come into play. The history of this right of choice has demonstrated that these companions to choice have more often been neglected than considered.

Choice and Responsibility

Saying that it should be a solely a woman’s choice of whether to carry a pregnancy all of the way to birth doesn’t say everything. It takes two to tango and, leaving aside sperm banks and modern techno-gizmos, there is a father for every baby or fetus. A woman’s right to choose means that neither biological father nor society should be able to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term, nor to terminate it. It should not mean that the woman’s sexual partner is denied his freedom of choice not to have to support an unwanted child for the next twenty or so years. Choice is a sword that cuts both ways. Unfortunately, too few women have been willing to own up to their responsibilities, and the courts have been too willing to go along.

When a woman’s sexual partner is notified of her pregnancy, he has as much right to say whether or not he wants to be the father of a child as the woman has about whether she wants to be a mother. He should not be coerced, any more than a woman should; what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Should he decide that he isn’t ready to raise a child, for whatever reasons, his sole liability should be half the cost of an abortion. (If he’s notified and doesn’t make such a choice in a timely fashion, he might be out of luck.)

The argument used to deny men the choice of fatherhood in such circumstances is the so-called welfare of the child. This is bunk, in my opinion. Part of the choice process for all reasonable people is: can I/we afford it. Couples have been doing it, or trying to do it, since time immemorial. It’s called family planning. There is no logical reason on earth why any pregnant woman should be exempted from the responsibility to exercise such consideration. If the father of her fetus decides he doesn’t want to be a parent, she must make it a part of her decision process whether she is ready, willing and able to raise a child on her own, without trying to use the court system to compel the biological father to support a child he doesn’t want. She might or might not have other resources on which to draw, perhaps family support or personal income. All well and good. (She probably cannot count on the pro-life crowd to help her raise her child into adulthood; that says a lot about how pro-life they really are!) But if a woman wants the choice, she must also be prepared for the responsibility.

Choice and Other People’s Choices

A woman’s choice whether or not to have a child really is her choice. (It’s better for all involved, of course, when it’s a stable couple making the choice, but that’s another matter.) Regardless, it’s not the choice of everyone else in the world. Other people have their own choices, and they are just as important to them as is an individual woman’s or family’s choice to have a child. Unfortunately, too many parents want to foist some of their responsibilities for their parental choice onto other people. We hear a lot of complaints from parents that this or that part of society is not “child friendly.” What this really means that they want hand-outs. They want:

  • airlines to let their kids ride for free or very cheaply;

  • low-cost meals in restaurants for their children;

  • tax breaks;

  • other people looking after and looking out for their kids (to wit “Baby Onboard”)

  • etc., etc.

Unfortunately, too many parents think that their choices are paramount and that other people’s choices are not worth considering. They assume that parents are valuable for bringing another generation of children into the world. Other people have different ideas, however. They might feel that the world already has too many people, and that they are doing the world a favor by not having children. People might have other reasons for such choices, such as other activities that would fulfill their lives better than having children. Who are parents to decide that others should abandon their own choices, or undercut them by forcing others to support their own children?

Personally, I avoid like the plague restaurants that advertise that children eat for free; I have no desire to subsidize other people’s kids. I won’t contribute to museums and such that don’t offer kid-free days and times so that I can peruse the contents without crowds of kids pushing, screaming and crowding and generally making it impossible to pause and ponder what I’m seeing. Airlines should offer kid-free flights. Amusement and other parks should hold adult- only days and times.

I recently attended the Los Angeles County Fair. It’s getting worse and worse, in this regard. Gone are the days when parents would push a child in a little baby stroller. Now they have these big pieces of apparatus that have everything but chrome bumpers, fins and mag wheels. The latest things are the giant, covered kid-carriers that are to the old little red wagon what a tractor-trailer rig is to a pickup truck. And the parents pulling or pushing those arks think nothing at all of stopping right in the middle of a busy aisle to converse on a cell phone.

I sometimes hear “give them a break, they have a lot to do.” I don’t sympathize! It was their choice, remember? Of course, if more parents controlled their kids better, taught them manners and consider­ation for others (and practiced it themselves), I might feel differently.

A Slight Diversion — Property Taxes

I have never objected to paying school taxes, within reason. There are some things that need to be fixed about the process, however. For example, a couple of decades ago, my mother was retired, widowed and living on a teacher’s pension in the Massachusetts town, full of single-family homes, where our family lived since I was ten years old. Her situation was similar to that of many others in the community whose children had grown up in the ’50s and ’60s. The small, exurban farming community north of Boston had been invaded by yuppies living in McMansions on three-acre lots built on much of the former farm and forest land of the town. After failing in an effort to prohibit any garden visible from the street, the newcomers put a big, expensive education measure on the local ballot. They wanted nothing but the best for their kids, but were completely dumfounded when the measure went down in flames.

The yuppies simply couldn’t understand why everyone in town wouldn’t get behind a measure that would so obviously improve the schools. The town already had an excellent school system at least since the 1950s and was proud of it. What the yuppie families couldn’t grasp was that a large part of the town population either had already made the sacrifices to raise their kids and didn’t want to be driven from their homes by high property taxes, or were members of my generation but didn’t have McMansion-sized resources. They could always have contributed any amount they wished to better the schools as they saw fit, but that wasn’t good enough for them: they wanted other people to pay for it.

For another example, about thirty years ago, Californians passed a ballot measure called Proposition 13 to curtail the ever-rising property taxes in the state. Folks didn’t want to face a situation in which they couldn’t afford to live in their homes. The plummeting of the quality of the education system in California over about the same period since is usually blamed on Proposition 13, however, there are many other factors that come into play.

For a third example, in New Hampshire a decade or so ago, the state was sued by a number of cities and towns over the funding of the schools. In a state without an income tax, revenue was raised with property taxes. Places such as the small city where we lived from when I was three until I was ten were suffering gravely. In that city, the cause was the flight of industry from the Connecticut River valley. In other places, the roots were different, but the results were the same. Where I had lived, the high school was on the verge of losing its accreditation. Some southern New Hampshire cities were booming with industry spilling over from Massachusetts, but other places were bust. The charge against the education funding situation was lead by the man who was my fourth grade history teacher and school principal (it was a small school), who was by then a State Senator (and has since passed away). The movement was victorious and the state was forced to find other ways of funding its education system than simply local property taxes.

Property taxes, at least those based upon personal property, the places where we live, are an anachronism. They might have been suitable in the time when the focus of economic activity in this country was based on the land. People farmed. Other people, whether they were blacksmiths, coopers, wheelwrights, carpenters, etc., served farming and it was reasonable to tax them indirectly via property taxes. Today, most people earn wages from working either for a business or for government, although there still are a few areas where family farming is important and personal property taxes might make sense. The country and some states now have graduated income taxes and that method, it seems to me, is a much more logical way of supporting government and education than property taxes. In these times, it makes no sense to rely on a system that sets property tax rates based upon virtual capital gains that the property owners might or might not ever collect.

Choice and Democracy

Supposedly, we live in a democracy in which we choose legislators by how well we think they will support our choices in life. This democracy is undercut by an educational system supported by personal property taxes. Educational funding is often controlled by legal entities other than our legislators. (Yes, we elect school district board members, but we are not given the same choices about funding as we are with other issues. Our personal property will be taxed for schools to some extent, whether or not our incomes let us afford to pay them. This is true whether we own our own homes or if we pay property taxes indirectly, with rent.) To make matters worse, the more children a family has, the less they pay per child in the school system, even though more children consume more resources. We pay for our highways with gasoline taxes; the more we drive, the more we pay. Doing the opposite with school funding favors those who have chosen to have children over those who have made other choices. It’s anti-democratic.

Society as a whole benefits from public education. It is an investment in the people who will be bettering our health, solving society’s problems and inventing our tools and toys in the future. It is reasonable for people to pay something for it, based upon what they can afford, of course. However, publicly funded education is also a benefit to the children in the system and to the parents who have made the choice to have children. Like any other choices in a democracy, one part of society should not benefit inordinately at the expense of those who would prefer other choices. In other words, I shouldn’t be able to force my choices on you. The real social costs of children to society should be a part of family planning. Choosing to have more children should cost more, not less in the manner of income tax deductions and inverse costs for more children in the school system.

Social Benefits Not Just for Parents

Parents want family leave for child birth. They want time and days off to care for children or to attend school events. I don’t object, so long as I get similar benefits for the choices I have made in life. If I want a similar amount of time off to further my education or to hike in the Andes or to help a candidate get elected or to improve my stamp collection, it should be just as available as the benefits parents wish to receive. Furthermore, I expect parents to be just as cheerful to support my choices as they want me to be when supporting theirs. Unfortunately, I see too few parents with sufficient consideration for others to support such equality.

October 17, 2007

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