1. Women Carry the Child and the Choice
Women’s reproductive rights have, throughout recorded history and without cessation, concerned men in roles of power. It seems every four years in the United States we’re re-treated to the same batch of polarized positions on the issue. During the vice-presidential debate this year, Tim Kaine and Mike Pence both made their opinions known, which is to say they made clear exactly how they planned to drag religion into their governing (one slightly more than the other). This is not an uncommon frame. Pro-lifers often argue for the right of the fetus in relation to laws of a higher order. Pro-choicers often argue for the right of the woman to choose — to maintain control of her body and not be coerced or mandated to carry a pregnancy to term. But while religion seems to most actively influence a person’s position on abortion, a growing and vocal sector of this issue concerns the rights of the father to have decision-making power in the birth of the child. This, reworded, amounts to the question, “Should fathers have the legal right to veto an abortion if they want a woman to carry their child to term regardless of the woman’s opinion?” The answer is no.
Take any number of historical moments as a launching pad. Roman law called it illegal for a woman to have an abortion without the express consent of her husband on penalty of exile. (One must wonder if Roman men were as flaky on “consent” as today’s anti-PC crowd; one imagines not.) Men in government during that time seemed particularly vested in procreation, seeing as children, like a well-bodied and active citizenry, were considered resources expendable by the state for purposes of war and defense.
Though it seems to be less the case that religion orders the “modern society,” for much of recorded history centralized religion dominated western regions by imposing socio-political regulations and boundaries, claiming both moral and political legitimacy by way of brute force. They, Christian dominators, maintained positions on women’s health similar to their Roman counterparts and predecessors. Again, it seems early religious doctrine, while not explicitly insidious, restricted women’s behavior in service to the intentions of men. This historical precedent invariably carries over into 21st-century politics, informing the epistemological boundaries we now (ardently) maintain on both sides of the political spectrum.
Jump to Planned Parenthood v. Danforth when the court affirmed the right of women to have abortions without needing written consent by parents or spouse. Why is it that most Western nations now affirm the right of the individual woman to choose? American jurisprudence answers with a passage from Roe v. Wade: the “right of privacy…is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Within the corpus of women’s empowerment, this decision helped the modern woman secure, if only partially, the right to her own body, the right to decide for herself boundaries that for so long had been the claimed dominion of men.
This seriously abbreviated history is useful, though not necessary, to understand why women no longer need to consult men when it comes to decisions made about their own bodies.
Men’s rights and fathers’ rights activists will argue that conception is the result of an equation that demands equally contributing halves. They will argue that the right of the father is equal to the right of the mother in making decisions about a child’s chance at life. They may reference, quite powerfully, the “feminist argument” that the lack of say for men during gestation is outdated and reinforces traditional gender roles – i.e., the obligations of the mother to mother, of the father to remain emotionally, though not financially, removed. While we should have empathy for expectant fathers who earnestly want children, who’ve conceived with their partner, arguments for the rights of fathers regarding the decision to abort do nothing to overrule the plain and defendable truth that women’s bodies are and should legally be the purview of women. Of course, situations will arise that call for a more considerate application of the rule. In all cases, the decision to abort or carry to term is first a women’s health issue. The law correctly recognizes this as such.
Indeed, the situation is more nuanced than simply letting women make decisions about their bodies regardless of legal and personal consequences. This argument has largely omitted a discussion of gender roles, persons who identify with neither “female” nor “male” classifications or LGBTQ+ couples and their decision to have or not have children. Truly, cases of dissenting parental opinion will be individual and unique. However, no excuse exists at this late period to limit the rights of women, especially considering the politico-historical implications that so closely dog present-day legislation regarding abortion. Other arguments naturally follow questions of reproductive health and maternal and paternal rights: all women should be ensured free and available reproductive health services like access to birth control, government-subsidized tampons, sex education courses, prenatal health and exercise courses, and, yes, the right to safe and legal abortion, just like there should be guarantees regarding paid paternity leave and at the very least a reexamination of financial obligations imposed on unwilling fathers. For now, the decision should be left to the person for whom the situation most personally and resonantly matters. Let the woman choose.
2. Men Should Have a Place in the Conversation
Abortion has arguably been one of the most controversial social topics of the last 50 years, and neither side of the argument seems to show any sign of budging. In fact, people seem to have only grown more passionate since the Supreme Court case, “Roe v. Wade,” ruled in 1973 that a woman could legally terminate her pregnancy in conjunction with the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. This clause made claim to a right to privacy, which the Supreme Court saw as extending to medical matters surrounding abortion. These rights, however, are considered to fade as the pregnancy progresses, putting legal responsibility into the hands of the State as well as the mother after the first trimester. This all seems fairly straightforward, and thus far it seems that the majority of the debate’s focus has revolved around the rights of the mother and her child. For instance, at what point, if any, is it okay to abort a pregnancy? Should it be done only when the mother’s life is in jeopardy, or whenever she wants to? However, as long as this debate has been going on, I have had a hard time thinking back on what I’ve learned about the father’s role in the termination, or not, of his child’s life. Maybe he doesn’t have one. But, after all, he is the genetic half of the unborn child. Shouldn’t he have some responsibility?
Focusing more on unmarried relationships, a woman can legally terminate a pregnancy without the biological father’s consent. The reasons for this may have to do with the fact that a man is not physically affected by a pregnancy, or, according to family.findlaw.com, “a woman’s right to privacy in her medical decisions,” as mentioned above. Since the Supreme Court Case, “Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth,” of 1976, and according to a timeline created by npr.org of Supreme Court cases regarding abortion laws, a spouse does not possess the veto power necessary to have any legitimate and legal say in the termination (or not) of a woman’s pregnancy because of the spouse’s position as a third party member of the case.
I understand this completely. And, as a woman and pro-choice advocate myself, I feel better knowing that Federal law complies with women’s interests in pregnancy before men’s. I would never want to hear of a woman being legally bound to carrying a pregnancy to term because the biological father, whatever his intentions may be, objected to her terminating a pregnancy she wasn’t prepared to handle. However, while I do agree that the rights of women and the children they’re carrying should take priority, I do think there are some adverse consequences to disregarding a man’s role in abortion that don’t seem to get enough consideration.
People seem to forget that men are just as responsible for conception as women — even more so in cases of sexual force. However, it seems to me that women unjustly carry an excessive amount of the burden of pregnancy, whether that be due to some inherent biological detachment men have from the issue, or cultural influences that suggest that because men aren’t “supposed” to be the primary caretakers of children, they have less responsibility for those children during all phases of life. Whatever the reason, the results are frustrating to me. It’s frustrating that so many men of various ages don’t seem to feel the same burden of responsibility surrounding the potential for unplanned pregnancy that women feel. And the fact that the law favors women heavily over men in cases of abortion, adoption, etc. is, I think, perpetuating this and reinforcing acceptably negligent behaviors by men that can negatively affect women.
I’m not sure what the solution to the issue is, especially because I think women should be protected first and foremost in cases regarding abortion. And I’m sure plenty of people don’t even see an issue here. But I don’t think I’m alone when I say that some men, and even some women, can have somewhat flippant attitudes towards sex and its consequences. And while women all too often have no choice but to carry the blunt of the aftermath, too many men are let off the hook. So legally acknowledging men’s roles in the lives of their unborn children, rather than dismissing them, I think, is important if we want to see men in general take more responsibility for their actions involving the lives of others — the lives of their partners, children and potential children. Whether that comes from giving these men more parental credit when considering custody, or legally requiring them to experience the effect of an unplanned pregnancy, I think men should be more involved in what happens after the hookup is over.