Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2001

Procreation rights in question

July 15, 2001


If David Oakley fathers another child, he could go to prison. The Wisconsin Supreme Court said so just last week.

That fact notwithstanding, it's hard to see why he would even want another kid. Thirty-four-year-old Oakley, of Manitowoc, about 75 miles north of Milwaukee, already has nine children, ages 3 to 16, by four mothers. He owes $25,000 in child support that he can't or won't pay. All of which has put him at the center of a bizarre court ruling with national implications.

It seems that back in 1999, Judge Fred Hazlewood gave Oakley five years' probation on two counts of failure to pay child support. The probation was contingent upon his not making any more children during that five-year period without demonstrating the financial ability to care for all his progeny. If Oakley violates those terms, he's looking at eight years in the gray bar hotel. Make a baby, go to jail.

"If you think I'm trampling all over your constitutional rights," said the judge, "so be it."

That's exactly what Oakley thought, so he appealed to the state's top court, which just went against him, 4 to 3. His attorney has criticized the court for not considering less drastic remedies, like garnisheeing Oakley's wages. He's pondering another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I wish him luck. Reluctantly.

Fact is, it's hard to feel too sorry for David Oakley. "Irresponsible" doesn't begin to describe this man. Anyone who makes nine babies by four women and then won't take care of them deserves to have the roof fall in on him. And any woman who, knowing the guy's track record, allows him to impregnate her, isn't demonstrating a lot of smarts either. Such folks illustrate one of the most exasperating paradoxes of our existence. Namely that, while you need a license to catch a fish or drive a car, any dope with working reproductive organs and a willing partner can undertake the most awesome function of all. Can make life.

So, just as it's hard to feel sympathy for David Oakley, it's easy to sympathize with Judge Hazlewood. Exasperating paradoxes invariably inspire simplistic solutions. And Hazlewood's is a classic. Sounds like the kind of thing one formulates while sitting on a barstool.

Unfortunately, things are more complicated in the real world of human rights and legal precedent. This ruling raises all sorts of difficult questions.

A spokeswoman for the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project calls it clearly unconstitutional. Others have observed that Oakley could violate probation through no fault of his own prophylactic failure, for instance. And as one dissenting justice pointed out, if some woman becomes pregnant by Oakley, she may face pressure to have an abortion, considering the consequences of giving birth. From a legal perspective, Houston-based attorney Lindsey Short, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, says any potential children are beside the point. "Whether or not he or any other parent has children in the future is of no moment to the issue of the existing children." He doesn't think other states will follow Wisconsin's lead.

I hope he's right, because the Badger State has just embarked upon the proverbial slippery slope. To procreate or not is one of the most fundamentally intimate questions human beings face. And while it might be tempting to look the other way as that decision is taken out of the hands of a cavalier deadbeat, we ought to worry about what comes next.

If we can take procreative rights away for nonpayment of child support, can we also take them away for poverty? Let's say some indigent man and woman have more kids than they can support because their religion forbids birth control and abortion. Can we take the right to reproduce away from them? What about habitual criminals? The disabled or the unstable? You or me?

One hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will someday hear this case and send Judge Hazlewood the message the state court did not. Will remind him that judicial pique, even when justified, is a dangerous indulgence with far-reaching potential.

After all, that's no barstool he's sitting on.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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