It's a conversation that I don't know if I've ever seen go well (and yet, here I am, putting my foot in the water, too). I think that one of the biggest problems with the conversation is that it conflates two very different issues. Despite the best attempts by some commenters, abortion is not comparable to opting out. Abortion is about the right to personal autonomy regarding the use of one's body as an incubator for an unwanted fetus. Opting out is about the desire not to be held financially responsible for your offspring.
There are a lot of problems with conflating the two things. The arguments in support or against them simply aren't the same, and, I think, men's rights groups shoot themselves in the foot when they try to pretend that they are. The suggestion that your right to control your wallet is the same as a woman's right to control her body is... well... it's sort of offensive. It treats a woman's body like a piece of property, and I think that women are rightly annoyed and disturbed by that kind of reasoning.
So, what I propose to do in this post is talk about child support as child support- not as an issue somehow comparable to abortion. The question here is simple: should a parent have a right to opt out of child support?
Honestly, I think it'd be great if we had a system that would allow for people who don't want to be parents to not have to bear any of the unwanted burdens associated with childcare. Right now, if neither parent wants the child, they have options that let them avoid those burdens, but if the child is born and either parent decides to keep it, we run into the problem of child support payments.
The problem is that children have needs and the needs of those children must be taken into consideration. Having and caring for children isn't cheap- there are doctor visits, and food, and clothes, and supplies for school, babysitters or childcare, etc. I don't think it's reasonable to expect most single parents have the resources to care for a child just lying around. I suspect that most single parents need all the help they can get. Hell, most coupled parents need help from time to time.
As it stands, I don't see any way to abolish child support that doesn't do more harm than good, and I don't blame feminists for not jumping on the issue with full force. Why should they? Child support is something that goes to the child, not the parent, and either parent can collect it. I don't think that child support is unfair, given the purpose and the beneficiary. I don't doubt that some people can point out cases of abuse wherein the money didn't go where it should have, but if those cases are punished, and they represent a tiny minority of the problems with the system (people not paying representing a much bigger problem), I'm not going to get too down on people over it.
Now, personally, I think it'd be great if there was a social net for single parents who were raising a child alone. If there were circumstances where either parent had made it clear that they wanted nothing to do with being a parent, all rights and obligations could be severed and some kind of public fund would help defer the costs of childcare.
I think that there are several very real advantages to a system like this. The first advantage is that it allows people who don't want to be parents to opt out of that, with the stipulation being that, by giving up all of the burdens of being a parent, they also give up on all of the rights, as well. For the people who feel frustrated by being compelled to pay child support for a child they neither wanted nor want anything to do with, that's a very real benefit.
Another benefit is that, by spreading the burden out over a larger number of people, we can (theoretically, at least) better provide for those children. Child support barely scratches the surface when it comes to the actual costs of raising children. A public fund that would help pay for the cost of raising children, or that would, for example, provide some of the things children require, the needs of a child might better be met. According to USDA research, an average full child support payment for a middle income household in 1996 only covered about 33% of the estimated expenditure on that child. Ideally, we want each parent to contribute half of the cost of raising the child, since they contributed equally to the creation of the child- but the custodial parent caries the bulk of the burden.
And that's assuming that the payments are actually made. In many cases, the non-custodial parent does not make the payments, or pays less than the full ammount, which only increases the burden on the custodial parent.
A system where child support was paid for through public funding might actually let us increase the standard of living for those children living in single parent homes.
Of course, I recognize that such a system would be ripe for abuse, and that drives some people up the wall. The notion that someone would exploit such a system- and, I have no doubts that some people might- is enough to reduce support for such a plan. The other side of that is that there are plenty of people who think that such a system would further negate men's involvement in their children's lives, by creating a system where there were no consequences to fathering many children.
Which leads me to a bit of criticism with regards to the feministing thread. As much as I can understand where the frustration comes from, I don't think that all of the responses are helpful or fair. The only real justification that I see for child support (and I really don't see how any other is needed) is that the welfare of the child must be taken into consideration, and, barring support for an alternative plan, the burden has to be shared by the people who created the child. But, there are a number of comments in that thread that ammount to "Well, men need to face consequences for sex."
That kind of argument strikes me as being sort of weird. One of the things that we've often talked about around the feminist blogosphere is that pregnancy is not a punishment. We shouldn't be using children as a means of punishing people for having sex, either. If we could find a way to reasonably provide for the child without forcing either parent (who doesn't want children) to bear the burden, we should consider it. The notion that child support should be used as a means of creating consequences for men is a bit problematic to me.
Women do not have the right to have sex without coping with the consequences--that's impossible for us. One of the ways we cope is abortion. But MRAs want men to be able to have sex without coping with the consequences. Nope. We don't get to skip off, and neither do they.
Another major benefit of a system like this would be the providing of care in the cases where one parent is absent due to death. As it stands, the death of one parent can be a serious financial burden on a family, and, if life insurance isn't something that the family could reasonable afford, or if the family spent a lot of money or racked up a lot of bills paying for medical care prior to the death, it could substantially reduce the quality of a child's life.
The problem I have is that, ultimately, I want everyone to be able to have sex that is as free of consequences as possible. I sort of think that most of us would like that. The only people I want to have children are, well, people who want to have children. I want people who just want to have sex for recreational purposes to find partners who want the same, and to be able to have safe, healthy, fun sex, without unwanted pregnancy or disease.
So, yeah, I do, in fact, want men and women to be able to have consequence free sex. And it's true, the way things are right now, that rarely, if ever, happens. I don't, however, think that we should be doing things to reinforce that, or that reinforce the idea that children should be used as a means of punishing people for poor choices, which is how some of the comments read to me.
The fact that women, as the party that becomes pregnant, can never fully escape the risk of consequences is no more a justification for forcing men to pay child support than it is a justification for suggesting that women must act as walking incubators for children if men want them. The biological aspects of creation are beyond our control, but that doesn't excuse or justify treating either party unfairly.
Right now, I think that child support coming from the non-custodial biological parent is necessary, because I think that the needs of the child have to be taken into consideration, and there's simply not support for any alternative right now. That doesn't, though, mean that we shouldn't consider the possibility of a system wherein the needs of the child are met in some other way. The current system is better than no system- but that doesn't make a great system, or beyond improvement.
Right now it's sort of a "least bad" situation. It's certainly not a particularly good one, given that almost nobody is happy with it: the custodial parents still bear a substantially large piece of the financial burden, children still aren't getting the money that's required for their care, non-custodial parents don't always pay or pay less than they're supposed to, and some non-custodial parents resent being forced to pay for a child that they never wanted and made clear that they never wanted.
Of course, I've got a vested interest in this conversation, as someone who is considering donating sperm to a woman so that she can have a child with her partner. Since our state does not recognize same-sex adoptions or marriages, I could be help legally responsible for child support, even though none of us involved want me to be held responsible. Is this a normal situation? Of course not- it's a tiny fraction of all child support cases- but it's still a concern for me.