About half of surveyed Americans favor laws that would require child support payments to begin at the moment of conception, a stance that demonstrates the breadth and complexity in how policymakers may have to reconcile the concept of personhood before birth and determine when and how to establish rights in the aftermath of the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v. Wade.
The survey, conducted by the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy from June 13 to 23, found that 47 percent of respondents were in favor of child support payments from conception, 28 percent were opposed and 25 percent were unsure.
Chris Ellis, the co-director of the institute and political science professor at Bucknell University, said this finding extended across political and ideological lines, including those who described themselves as “pro life,” “pro choice,” Republican and Democrat. However, women were more likely than men to favor the idea. For years, abortion has been one of the few political issues in which men and women from the same party hold the same opinions, Ellis said, “but the idea of who should support the child is different … it’s about responsibility.”
Child support is the amount of court-ordered payments that parents make each month for their children’s expenses. Most states require child support payments to begin at birth, but at least one state has passed legislation requiring both biological parents to share the cost of prenatal care. Considered the first of its kind, Utah passed a bill in 2021 requiring biological fathers to pay 50 percent of the mothers’ insurance premiums, medical costs and hospital bills while pregnant. North Dakota introduced a similar bill in 2020, but it has since stalled.
Ellis said in light of the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, which had established the right to an abortion for nearly 50 years, it’s likely that more states will introduce similar legislation or look at other ways to support pregnant people. And it appears there is broad public support, according to the latest survey data.
“Now a whole lot of stuff that was hypothetical for forever is real,” Ellis said. The implications of the Supreme Court’s decision, he said, were “not just about whether abortion is legal or not. It’s all the other things that cascade from that — the most important one being, who is going to care for children that are born?”
The debate around when a person becomes a person with rights is not new. In 1986, Minnesota passed a “fetal homicide” law that established anyone who “causes the death of an unborn child” is guilty of third-degree murder and may be imprisoned for up to 25 years. Now, at least 38 states have similar laws.
Ellis said he envisions a future in which the definition of “personhood” differs across state lines, with some including fetuses and embryos before viability. Six states have already introduced abortion bans that establish “fetal personhood,” according to the Guttmacher Institute.
“If we’re thinking of a fetus as an actual person with rights, then a whole bunch of other stuff has to change. … I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
For instance, Ellis asked: Can pregnant people claim unborn children on tax returns? How will welfare spending policy be impacted? How will the unborn be counted in the Census?
“At some point, someone’s going to have to think hard about that because it really is more than just banning abortion,” Ellis said. “It’s figuring out what we mean when we actually say that this is a person that deserves full protection.”
Anne Douds, department chair and associate professor of public policy at Gettysburg College, said she thinks American courts will be untangling and litigating what an unborn person’s rights are for decades, if not the next century. Douds said there should be a shared responsibility between both parents, particularly in a post-Roe world, but that child support was not the answer.
“It makes good policy and legal sense to require biological fathers to pay for certain things from the moment that mothers are compelled by law to be pregnant,” Douds said. “Both parties involved in the creation of the pregnancy should bear the legal, financial and other obligations of that imposed condition.”
But, she added, child support laws that require payments before birth automatically recognize the zygote, embryo or fetus as a legal person with legal rights, which opens a “Pandora’s box of legal conundrums.”
“Does [the unborn person] have the full panoply of civil rights? Does the unborn person have the right to be free from illegal searches and seizure or to appropriate conditions of confinement during pretrial detention? If a pregnant woman is arrested, what are the responsibilities of the jail to provide prenatal care for that unborn, legally recognized person? If the biological father dies, does the unborn person have the right to inherit? And if personhood begins at conception, then are we going to require men to report to their employer’s human resources office every time they have sex because — if conception occurs — there is now a legal person with rights to things such as health insurance?”
The questions are endless and the implications are “mind-boggling,” Douds said.
“From both a legal and policy perspective, I think we need to create a right that vests in pregnant women to receive support that, on top of healthcare costs, includes short- and long-term disability coverage, physical therapy, mental health support and in-home assistance during high-risk pregnancies.”
Jennifer Greenfield, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, agreed that any legislation aimed at helping pregnant people should not be tied to the rights of unborn children.
Greenfield, whose academic research seeks to identify and test policy interventions that best support families as they balance work and caregiving, said she does not support laws that would require child support payments during pregnancy for two main reasons: the law is inconsistent with other federal policies that don’t recognize embryos and fetuses as children, and the law could put pregnant people experiencing intimate partner violence in increased danger.
Policies should not flow through biological fathers or be contingent on telling an employer about a pregnancy, Greenfield argued. One solution, she said, could be government cash payments for pregnant people who are not in the workforce, especially if targeted to ensure that they have a sustainable income, both during pregnancy and in the postpartum period.
“Better policies to support pregnant people would provide material supports, such as job-protected paid leave and universal health insurance coverage for people who become pregnant,” Greenfield said.