Dr. Richard O. Phillips accuses Dr. Sharon Irons of a “calculated, profound personal betrayal” after their affair six years ago, saying she secretly kept semen after they had oral sex, then used it to get pregnant.If your intuition is the same as mine, it says this is very wrong. To put the intuition in words: the child would not have been conceived were it not for the unilateral decision of Sharon Irons to impregnate herself. Phillips should therefore bear no liability for the outcome of Irons’s choice.
He said he didn’t find out about the child for nearly two years, when Irons filed a paternity lawsuit. DNA tests confirmed Phillips was the father, the court papers state.
Phillips was ordered to pay about $800 a month in child support, said Irons’ attorney, Enrico Mirabelli. [emphasis added]
But a court disagreed and decreed that Phillips should pay child support. Irons claims to have gotten pregnant “the old-fashioned way,” and maybe she’s telling the truth. But as a legal matter the judge said how the child was conceived was irrelevant. Why? Because it was his semen, end of story. (Here’s one account of the arguments in court.) The case is bizarre, but not entirely unique. The “interests of the child” doctrine has led to similar conclusions in similar cases, according to one op-ed. For example, male victims of statutory rape have allegedly been forced pay child support. (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the examples used.)
The driving force behind decisions like these is the “interests of the child” doctrine, which says the child is entitled to financial support regardless of anyone’s culpability in creating the child. Of course, we want children to be taken of. But that doesn’t justify holding someone responsible solely because his DNA is involved. If the goal were simply to assure financial support for a child, we could – with as much justification – pick a male name randomly out of a hat and require the lottery “winner” to pay child support. I suspect most people would be uncomfortable with this procedure because the “winner” didn’t create the child. But the same is true of Richard Phillips (assuming he's telling the truth), as he participated in an activity that will never, without deliberate and subsequent action on someone else’s part, lead to pregnancy.
The result is not just unfair, but also inefficient. Holding people liable for harms they haven’t caused gives people an incentive to do too little of the liability-triggering activity. An analogy: Suppose you stop a stranger to ask directions, and a few minutes later he gets hit by a car. He sues you for damages, and the court agrees, even though you did nothing to increase his likelihood of getting hit. What incentive does this give to future people in your position? They won’t ask for directions as often, leading to more time wasted by lost people (and their long-suffering female companions). Similarly, holding men responsible for their genetic offspring, even when (as Phillips claims in this case) they did not cause the offspring to come into being, gives them an incentive to engage in less oral sex, mutual masturbation, and other activities that do not create the risk of pregnancy. It also gives them an incentive to take excessive precautions when they do engage in sexual activities (such as flushing condoms down the toilet, thus creating a risk of clogging to avoid allowing the condom's contents to stick around).