Imagine for a moment this perfectly plausible scenario: You've had a steady girlfriend for a year or so and everything's going great. You still hold hands at the movies. Friends tell you you're good together. You're both around 30 years old and making plenty of money, maybe living together, but you're nowhere near considering fatherhood. And though you occasionally get the feeling that her biological clock is set far ahead of yours, she tells you she's "safe," so you don't worry. Why would you? It's not as if you'd just picked her up on Dollar Margarita Night at Senor Frog's. But one morning she tells you something has gone wrong. Unlikely as it sounds, she's pregnant-and she wants to keep it. What she doesn't tell you, though, is this: She wasn't being safe all along. She wanted to have that baby— and the way she saw it, this was the only way to make it happen.
Here's how a scenario like that played out in real life. Jody (not her real name), a 32-year-old account manager for a major New York ad firm, decided to speed things along with her boyfriend two years ago by getting pregnant without telling him. "It's not about trapping the guy," Jody says. "That's kind of old-fashioned. Yeah, you want him to be into it, but there are other ways to get a guy to commit. If you're smart and in a good relationship, it's just about the fact that you want a kid." Even in her circle of young, urban, and gainfully employed friends, Jody says, this particular brand of subterfuge isn't exactly condemned the way one might expect. In fact, it's sort of, well, normal. "I see and hear people talk about it, and I understand. I get it," she says, "and I don't even think it's that manipulative. It's more like, 'Hey, the timing is right for me. I got pregnant—oops! Well, it's here, let's have it.' I think that's more the way it is now than it was back in the day when you had to marry someone before you got pregnant. Marriage doesn't matter now."
Railroading a guy into parenthood isn't just some "baby daddy" soap-opera scenario. You'll never hear the ladies'-room chatter that leads people like Jody to feel justified, but to get some idea of it, consider this: A woman's fertility peaks when she's between the ages of 20 and 24, according to Mayo Clinic statistics. By the time she's 35 to 39, it's already wilted by 25 to 50 percent. And from there the options aren't always so attractive: The average cost of in vitro fertilization in the United States is $100,000 per baby—and insurance generally won't pay a cent. Combine that with the shifting social mores about single motherhood and having kids outside of marriage, and you've got a pretty good explanation for why some women, particularly ones in stable relationships, don't see this as trickery at all—it's more like a nudge.
"A lot of us feel like it's not even really fair that men should get to vote, considering they could be 72 and, with a little Viagra, have another baby," says Vicki Iovine, author of The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy. "For us women, it's really a limited window. We know that boys who grow up to become men don't necessarily want to be men. They like to be boys. And so women say, 'You know what? He's gonna just have to snap out of it—and my pregnancy will be the thing to do it.'" The end, says Iovine, sometimes justifies the means. "Any guy with a heart and soul, and preferably with a job, once he sees the baby on the sonogram or hears the heartbeat, will melt," she says.
Just how many women act on that presumption is hard to say. According to FDA figures, one in a thousand of them should get pregnant over the course of a year if they're using the Pill exactly as prescribed. But it is estimated that in reality 50 times that many get pregnant. There's no way of knowing how much of that disparity can be explained away by "intentional" oversight, but that's a big gap to chalk up to carelessness. And though there was a time when flushing the Pill down the toilet was fodder for Jerry Springer, the rules have changed. "I've been hearing a lot about this lately, and it's coming into the educated and wealthy classes, too," says Pepper Schwartz, a relationships expert for Perfectmatch.com and professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle (she does not support the practice). "These women can afford to take care of the child."
Many of them will probably have to. We don't hear about the cases in which a guy suspects he's been duped into fatherhood- but ultimately turns to mush in the soft glow of the sonogram monitor. But as cavalier as certain women are about the "nudge," not all men react so favorably when the "good news" is delivered—especially if they find out they've been snowed. Jody's boyfriend more or less freaked out. She terminated the pregnancy, then their relationship slowly dissolved. "It felt a little like the fun was taken out of everything," she says. "He was shocked and scared."
Last year, Matt Dubay, a 25-year-old computer programmer in Saginaw, Michigan, says he had the same reaction when his girlfriend, Lauren Wells, allegedly pulled something similar. Dubay claims she told him she was infertile and was using a contraceptive "as an extra layer of assurance and protection." But when she got pregnant anyway and told Dubay she was keeping the baby, he said he wanted no part of it. Earlier this year, he argued in court that her alleged deception should exempt him from having to pay child support. His lawyer, Jeffrey Cojocar, reasoned that Michigan's paternity law violated the Constitution's equal-protection clause: If the situation were reversed and Dubay had gotten Wells pregnant after claiming he was sterile, he'd have no way of forcing her either to keep or to abort the child. The judge didn't buy his argument, but it's helped open a broadening national dialogue: Where do you draw the line between deadbeat dad and victim of deceit?
"This case has actually been more of a movement," Cojocar says. "I probably got four or five hundred e-mails—many of them from females." The women Cojocar says he was hearing from were angry because their significant others were supporting exes who they suspected had pulled a sneak pregnancy. Cojocar is appealing the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. In the meantime, Dubay is paying $500 a month in child support.
The case has become a cause celebre for the National Center for Men (NCM), a men's-rights advocacy group that counsels people like Dubay through its website, www.nationalcenterformen.org—so much so that the organization's picking up the tab for his court costs. It's even trademarked the case: "Roe vs. Wade . . . for Men."
"Matt is asking for the reproductive choice he would have had if he were 'Mattilda,'" the website says. The NCM doesn't have much contact with men who acquiesce to their role as new fathers. The guys who come to the organization see their situations as deception in its purest form.
"A lot of these men feel like they have no control," says Mel Feit, the NCM's executive director. "The courts are ruthless in enforcing getting money and not asking questions. Judges aren't allowing the fraud argument, either."
The NCM actually offers the "Reproductive Rights Affidavit" (think of it as the sexual equivalent of a living will), which challenges "any court order that seeks to impose a parental obligation upon me against my will." Unfortunately for Jeremy, a 35-year-old technical consultant and musician in New York, the affidavit doesn't provide a legal cover for now. He thought he'd found himself a nice girl. He had just split with his longtime fiancee but explains that this new woman was saying all the right things—even when it came to practical matters. She was on the Pill. She was pro-choice. So she and Jeremy (who's using a fake name) enjoyed a couple of months of unprotected intimacy.
Then things got weird. She mysteriously quit drinking. She disappeared for days at a time. She told him she was considering going off birth control, though she assured him she hadn't yet. By July, Jeremy had had enough and broke things off. Then in August, he says, she told him she was pregnant and was keeping it. "She was pregnant all of May, all of June, and all of July," Jeremy says. "I said, 'Why didn't you tell me about this sooner?' She's like, 'I didn't want you to influence my decision.' Something that has potential impact on me for the rest of my life, she doesn't want me influencing her decision!?"
More than a year and $6,500 in legal fees later, Jeremy has a 7-month-old boy he's never met, a child-support case pending, and a judge who's less than sympathetic toward his allegations of contraceptive deceit. Even his own attorney told him he'd better ditch that dream of becoming a full-time musician and focus on the computer gig that he'd hoped would only supplement his income: "She was like, 'You know what? You gotta be a man. You're gonna have to have a job 40 hours a week, and you need to support this child—this is your responsibility and your obligation.' And I'm thinking to myself, like, 'How is all of this my responsibility and my obligation when none of this was my choice?'"