In a Utopian world, no person—male or female—would be forced into parenthood. However, as much as this may seem unfair, we must bear responsibilities for our actions.
Is Sherri Shepherd wrongly being forced into motherhood?
The short answer is no.
It was reported Tuesday that the actress and former host of The View lost her court case against her soon-to-be ex-husband Lamar Sally, in which she sought to terminate her parental rights and responsibilities to a child she and Sally had agreed to have via surrogacy, with Sally's sperm and a donor's egg.
In the ruling, a Pennsylvania judge determined that Shepherd is legally the mother of the child in question, an 8-month old boy named LJ . While the court case is confidential, according to reports, the surrogate, Jessica Bartholomew, was 6 months pregnant when Shepherd decided she did not want to raise the child. After the birth, Bartholomew's name was listed on the child's birth certificate, and, according to Bartholomew, she was legally and financially responsible for the boy. Apparently, a child-support case was commenced against Bartholomew by the State of California because Sally, who has full custody and is raising the child, applied for Medi-Cal, a program in California that provides low-cost health coverage for families with limited incomes.
There are a few interesting aspects to this case. The first is the lack of a biological connection, and the fact that—because Shepherd did not use her own body to conceive, carry, or birth the child—she is being allowed to play the role of the "reluctant father." In this role, she is the one accusing the "mother"—here played by Sally—of defrauding her into signing the surrogacy contract and of being a "gold digger" who is using a baby to get financial support. These are the exact kinds of arguments some men make when they don't want to face the consequences of their actions.
In a Utopian world, no person—male or female—would be forced into parenthood. However, as much as this may seem unfair, we must bear responsibilities for our actions, and the needs of the children we create (by contract or otherwise) are paramount. In cases where men have sex but don't want to become a parent, their consent to sex gives implied consent to the risk of pregnancy, and to the possibility of parenthood. As I've argued when discussing the concern surrounding "forced fatherhood" and the suggestion that men be allowed to "opt out," the best public policy for children born without their father's consent is the one currently in place, which requires the father to support the child financially.
Shepherd similarly has no right to "opt out" of her financial and legal obligations to the child she created via surrogacy. Shepherd, along with Sally, entered into a binding and legally enforceable contract with the surrogate, thus establishing Shepherd's intent to become a parent. She apparently made public statements expressing excitement about the expected child, and video evidence to that effect was considered by the court. There also seems to be no evidence that Shepherd was defrauded into entering the contract or faced undue duress from Sally.
Shepherd's claims that Sally is a "gold digger," while an interesting reversal of gender roles, are laughable. As legal experts have noted, "the responsibility of raising a child vastly outweighs the amount of money" Sally might receive in child support from Shepherd.
And now we reach the heartbreaking aspect of this case, a word that Sally himself uses.
Just as fathers may be forced to pay child support, but can choose not to have a relationship with their child or do the actual work of raising a child, Shepherd seems to be making such a choice. Indeed, Sally says that what he wants more than anything is for Shepherd to co-parent their son. In a recent compelling piece for The New York Times Motherlode Blog, Kimberly Seals Allers wrote about how she forgave nearly $40,000 in child support arrears so that her daughter's father could be more involved in her daughter's life and not face the threat of arrest warrants. But, in her case, it seems the father desires to be a part of his daughter's life.
This illustrates what we already knew. We can't really force anyone to become a parent; to provide the hands-on child care, emotional support, and intangible wealth of things that children need. All our legal system can do is force parents to be financially responsible for the children they create, regardless of the creation method used.
If we are to be concerned about the prospect of forced motherhood, we should focus our energy elsewhere. We can start with the person who was actually forced into motherhood in this instance—the surrogate, who was made to carry the responsibilities of being a mother, including being on the hook for child support. And we should discuss whether surrogacy contracts like the one at issue should be banned altogether, as they are in some states, given the serious ethical, moral, and legal implications they raise.
At the same time, we can work to stop the frightening roll back of women's access to abortion and contraception. This, in the end, is a far more serious threat to choice in motherhood than the ruling against Shepherd.