Keeping Terrible Secrets

shhhhSomeday I should have an ethics quiz asking which advice columnist is more unethical, Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist,” or Emily Yoffe, Slate’s “Dear Prudence.” That horrible exercise is for another day, however. Right now, I am only considering Emily’s latest botch, in which she urged a mother with a guilty conscience to take her terrible secret to her grave.

The secret in question is that the woman asking Emily’s counsel conspired to get pregnant via her gullible, not-ready-to commit boyfriend, who thought she was using birth control. Now it’s 13 years later. She and the double-crossed father are  happily married to other people, in different states, though he “is involved” in his daughter’s life, whom he accepted as his own. Mom never told him what she had done, and he believes that his daughter was an accident, leading him to stay with the family for the child’s first three years.  “Prudence’s” questioner concludes,

“…I had decided that I would go to my grave never telling anyone what I had done. Recently, a friend became pregnant after a one-night stand. Everyone assumes that was an accident, but she confided in me that she had been seeking out sex with the purpose of getting pregnant. I was so relieved to meet someone else who planned an “accidental” pregnancy that it made me wonder if I should open up about my secret. But I’m afraid if I told Ben it might change the way he interacted with Holly. My questions are: Am I some kind of monster for getting pregnant on the sly? And should I come clean, and if so, who should know?”

What? The reply to this should take about 20 seconds of thought to answer:

  • You’re relieved that one of your friends is a lying, betraying fraud? Don’t turn your back on her; I’m warning you.
  • Of course you should tell “Ben,” since he’s the one whose life was turned upside down by your selfish perfidy and deception.
  • “It might change the way he interacted with Holly,” eh? You mean “he might not send quite so much money to you to take care of Holly,” don’t you? Too bad. This is your doing, your lie, and your fault. “I don’t like the potential consequences of telling the truth” is not a justification to keep lying.
  • Yes, indeed you are some kind of monster. What you did was despicable, cowardly, cruel and wrong. Ben might be a prince about it (“Ah, that’s all water under the bridge now! The important thing is that we have our beautiful little girl, and nothing else matters!”), or he might call his lawyer. That’s his choice, and he has an absolute right to have the facts to make it his choice.

Emily, however, reasons otherwise. Don’t tell him, she counsels…

  • “Your act doesn’t make you a monster…” Yes, it really does. Didn’t we establish this in “An Officer and a Gentleman”?
  • “…nor do I think there’s any benefit to enlightening everyone now.”  That’s Ben’s call. The Golden Rule says that he’d want to know that he was tricked, and has been living a lie for over a decade. I sure would. I like to know just how trustworthy the people I associate with really are.
  • “Both you and Ben rose to the occasion and neither of you would express regret that you’re parents to Holly.” Consequentialism! So what? What if she were a rebellious, hateful, crack-addicted thief? The fact that thing turned out all right doesn’t justify the lie or keeping it hidden now.
  • “…At this late date, however, your coming clean would only cast a shadow over your character.” A character that richly deserves such a shadow.
  • “You are deeply remorseful for what sounds like a singular act of substantial deceit.”  What difference does it make that it’s a single act? A single act is enough. And this wasn’t “deceit.” This was a lie.
  • “There’s nothing to be gained by telling your husband and making him uneasy about your essential honesty.” I’d say one’s husband has the right to know the character of who he’s married to. 
  • “You and your friend are also hardly the only women to deliberately get pregnant without letting the man in on your plan, as objectionable as that behavior is.” Oh, that’s terrific, Emily. The old “you’re not the first” rationalization, a particularly dumb variation on “everybody does it.” The conduct is horribly wrong, and the first person to do it is no worse than the 2,342nd.

Gee, I wonder what Chuck would say.


Facts: Slate

15 thoughts on “Keeping Terrible Secrets

  1. I was troubled by that letter as well, for many of the reasons you list. My only wobbliness is regarding the third party in all this: the daughter. 13 is a pretty psychologically vulnerable age.

    I couldn’t believe that Prudie told her her act didn’t make her a monster. A man, in the reverse scenario of him punching a hole in a condom in order to ensure that his partner would get pregnant, would be charged with sexual abuse.

  2. The woman Is a liar and a cheat. Her husband, the child, and the child’s father deserve to know the truth. Besides the honesty issues there are hereditary and biology issues that need to come out for the benefit of the child and future generations. Women think that just because they are the person with the womb they get to make all the decisions. That idea causes a lot of misery and it’s a misunderstanding of the responsibilities and ethics of having children.

    • The woman didn’t cheat on the current husband. It seems that she had the child before she even met him. Nor does the method of conception affect the amount that the ex-boyfriend would have to pay in child support, so that is at least one consideration off the table.

      But in the end, I think you would have to do a potential cost/benefit analysis. Is the harm that the ex-boyfriend might take the mom’s misdeeds out on the innocent daughter, causing him to resent her and potentially distance himself from her worth the benefit of mom clearing out her guilty conscience? Would that be ethical?

      • I don’t think she meant cheated on her husband. I think she meant cheated to get pregnant.

        But in the end, I think you would have to do a potential cost/benefit analysis. Is the harm that the ex-boyfriend might take the mom’s misdeeds out on the innocent daughter, causing him to resent her and potentially distance himself from her worth the benefit of mom clearing out her guilty conscience? Would that be ethical?

        None of her right to decide. He’s been a decent man so far. He has a right to know. Also its not about clearing her conscience, that’s a non ethical consideration.

  3. None of her right to decide. He’s been a decent man so far. He has a right to know.

    I guess this is where I disagree. If he is a decent man, then the fact that the daughter was conceived deliberately rather than accidently changes nothing, so what would be the point in telling him?

    If he isn’t a decent guy, then telling him harms the daughter, as he may not want to have anything to do with her anymore, so what would be the point of telling him under that scenario?

    The ex and the daughter apparently have a good relationship together, so the only thing that saying something about the daughter’s method of conception could do would be to potentially disrupt the relationship, or at best, leave it the same as it was before. But there is really no upside to telling the ex-boyfriend, not compared to the potential harm it would cause to an innocent third party. The mother was vile in tricking the ex, but there is nothing he could really do to get back at her at this point that wouldn’t be devastating and/or disruptive to the kid. Let sleeping dogs lie.

    • If he is a decent man, then the fact that the daughter was conceived deliberately rather than accidently changes nothing, so what would be the point in telling him?

      The point would be “he has a right to know he was lied to, tricked, and manipulated.” His potential reactions are absolutely immaterial to the matter.

  4. This one hits close to home. I have a 17 year old daughter from a previous relationship. Both myself and my ex have gone on to marry other people (we never married).

    The ONLY reason this liar wants to fess up is to make herself feel better and she doesn’t deserve it. As stated by others there is NO upside to this for anyone else involved.

    At best it is a non-event, as it would be in my case if my Ex called me out of the blue to tell me she intentionally got pregnant. I wouldn’t care. At this point it would change nothing. My relationship with my daughter is as independent as I can make of her mother and attached insanity. Sadly for others it could just sour the relationship the father has with his daughter, mostly likely indirectly, but possibly directly. That may possibly be the intent here.

    If the parents were currently married, it would be a different discussion, but even then I’m not sure it would be so clear cut.

    • Agreed. This is a secret that should never come to light. Even if the father is a stand up kind of dad, the daughter will find out and this will poison her relationship with one or both of her parents AND it may cause her to start doing some destructive behavior.

      The mother’s punishment will be feeling guilty for the rest of her life. That’s incredibly better than giving her a clean slate.

      As for the father, he would have to pay child support anyway, so he doesn’t have any legal recourse.

  5. Unfortunately, I know several women who have done this. I think the boyfriend and the husband have a right to know this. They also have a right to know why.

    Did she get pregnant because she wanted a child or because she wanted to force her boyfriend to marry her? If the latter, then her daughter was just a tool for her use and the daughter will figure this out. If it was the former, did she choose him because he had a good income? Because he had a good medical plan? I know a woman who had 5 children by one-night stands. She went to bars near military bases because they get good benefits and the military makes sure the men pay their child support.

    Did she mention if she used this trick on her current husband? Even if she didn’t, he might want to make sure he gets a vasectomy when he has had enough kids.

    This example should be required reading in sex ed classes.

  6. Yes, that the woman tricked him in this life-altering way was beyond despicable – and she should make herself be able to be held accountable for this by confessing to her ex. No buts. My heart aches for the child already.

    But the only way I’d feel sorry for the tricked dad, would be if the condom he used that fateful night was compromised on purpose by e.g. a needle wielded by the woman in question. Although I doubt, that he was wearing one – for obvious reasons. The pill alone is not 100 % reliable which it does say in the pachage instructions. Condoms are also not 100 % fool-proof but combined, these two have much more power to prevent “accidental” children than used seperately. If the man is dead-set against becoming a father, the additional use of condoms is mandatory. That or a vasectomy. Obviously he was only contend enough not bother with contraception himself. He was either too lazy to be bothered or not the brightest bulb in the batch. Men are entirely to free with their sperm. How can anyone be surprised if sex results in pregnancy – even if you really really really don’t want it to.

    I do think that both parents need to be held accountable in this mess.
    If in any case, having children with your chosen “sexual partner” is abhorrent to you – then you shouldn’t be in a relationship with him/her or not have sex at all if at the moment you’re not financially stable enough to support the upbringing of a child. Isn’t that common sense? The father in this case didn’t want be in a relationship with his ex longterm-commitment-wise. Then he should have made sure on his part simply for that reason.

    Both parents are idiots.

  7. Hello, I recently found your blog and have been reading some of your old posts commenting on Emily Yoffe’s former advice column. While it’s heartening to see that someone else has disagreed with her advice over the years as much I have, after reading more of your blog it seems we have disfavored her advice column for very, very different reasons.

    I am, however, compelled to comment on your own inconsistent application of ethics, which ironically puts you in good company with Yoffe.

    Your opinion here that Yoffe’s letter writer should confess to her child’s father completely contradicts your opinion on a previous Yoffe letter here Did your ethics change during the passage of a year? The two situations are the same. A person who does not believe in the relativity theory of ethics believes either (A) that both women should come clean, or (B) that neither has an obligation to. There are ethically sound arguments for choosing A over B, and ethically sound arguments for choosing B over A. But my ethics alarms go off when someone picks a little of column A and a little of column B.

    Here is a verbatim quote from your commentary on the transgender letter:

    “We all have a right to some secrets, and I reject the contention that spouses and other committed couples have an ethical obligation to reveal every aspect of their personal lives, including those that risk altering, damaging or ending the relationship.”

    By your logic, the woman discussed in this letter has no ethical obligation to admit to him that she got pregnant on purpose, especially as it could damage her current co-parenting relationship with him.

    Also at issue in both letters is one’s sexual autonomy. In this letter you are in effect advocating on behalf of the man’s s.a. after the fact, while in the previous letter you override it in the here and now. And knowing things about your partner, e.g., whether your partner is biologically a male or female, or whether they are deliberately trying to get pregnant, is indeed an issue of s.a. There are many men who do not consider transgendered women to be women — perhaps for religious reasons, perhaps for secular reasons. Since that belief is backed up by inescapable biological realities, it cannot always be summarily dismissed as bigotry, as you call it more than once in the previous letter. Some men simply do not want to have have intimate relations with biological males. Deceiving them into doing so is no different from serving non-kosher food to an observant Jew and letting him believe it’s kosher, or serving food that contains animal products to a vegan and letting her believe it’s vegan. Whatever ethics framework you apply has to abide by the rule that “right and wrong are not situational and subjective.” (That’s verbatim from your comments policies page.)

    I realize that both the letters and the commentary are ancient by internet standards, and that Slate has long since replaced Emily Yoffe with a younger, fresher agony aunt, Mallory Ortberg, who is better in some ways and worse in others. Perhaps your views on both letters has changed since these posts were published. In any case, I do not expect you will publish my comment or respond to it. But I hope you at least read it and think what personal biases caused you to selectively tune out one of the ethics alarms, or mistakenly hear an alarm where there was none.

    • Thanks for reading, but you are confused. In the case of the wife, the husband was laboring under a lie that she was responsible for. She has always had an obligation to correct that lie. Always. She deceived and betrayed him, and he has a right to know. He is a pure victim. Her only excuse is cowardice.

      In the other case, there is no obligation, and no deception. The woman is a woman, legally and mostly biologically. I’m quite proud that I took the position I did before it was politically correct. She’s not lying to her boyfriend or pretending to be something that she’s not. He does not have a right to know how she became a woman. This isn’t something she should be ashamed of, or that he should care about. I put it in the same category as a woman who is part Jewish, or part black. It shouldn’t matter, and doesn’t matter, and not revealing it is not dishonest. In the other case, there was a lie, and a bad one, that must be rectified.

      The two posts here are not inconsistent, and I’d have that anti-trans bigotry checked if I were you.

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