This past Father’s Day, President Obama delivered a weekly address in which he discussed the importance of having present, engaged fathers. While I think we’re all on the same page on that one, I wonder if our determination to give women control of their bodies is not inadvertently sending men the signal that they should not be engaged. That they have no role in this discussion and that the decision about whether to raise children has no impact on them.
The question about the rights of men in this debate is a tough one that our society hasn’t quite figured out yet. Child support was mandated by the courts to protect women from being saddled with the enormous burden of raising a child without financial assistance from the father (fellow blogger Christina Black recently wrote about this issue for Fem2pt0). And the question of whether to have a child or not, the Supreme Court has left up to the mother, because ultimately it is she who is put the most at risk.
It is a sad and unfair fact of life that men cannot give birth. But that’s the way it is biologically and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. We talk often about the freedom women should have to live their lives as they like, including the freedom to decide whether to have children. This freedom is not something we can grant to men, unfortunately. And that’s awful for everybody. Because it means the decision about whether a man can be a father or not is left up to someone else – a woman. And women can sympathize with not having the right to make a decision about becoming a parent.
Ultimately, we are uncomfortable talking about the rights men should or should not have because history has already shown us that women’s rights will be eroded every possible chance. My personal feeling is that the women’s movement simply does not trust society to deal fairly with the rights that should be assigned to each gender because women are already so screwed so often on so many of these issues. I hate that men can’t have kids. But I hate even more the sheer number of women pushed into single motherhood, penalized professionally and financially for having kids, forced to risk their bodies and their lives with pregnancies, and all the other punishments women suffer by getting the worse end of this deal.
But just because women are affected more by the question of whether to have a child or not does not mean that men are not affected at all. There are millions of caring and involved men all over the world who would want to be involved in their partner’s decision, who would want to be there to support her, who need support themselves, who don’t know where to turn or how to cope with an unintended pregnancy. And we tend to leave them out of the conversation entirely.
This is especially problematic when we consider teenage parents. I doubt most teenage boys who father children do so maliciously and carelessly. Most cases I know of, there was simply an accident. A lack of education, a lack of understanding of how to use contraception, a mistake . . . something. The burden of a pregnancy lies very much more with that poor teenaged girl – but to claim that the teenaged boy is never involved or affected is oversimplifying the matter. There are assuredly not enough resources for the women who need them. But there are also few resources for men as well.
By treating men as though they have no rights in the birth of children, are we unwittingly setting them up to be disengaged and uninvolved when they do become fathers?
I understand why we don’t focus on men’s rights very much in this debate. Particularly with the recent war on women that seeks to steal away all of women’s decision making abilities, their freedoms, and their rights, it’s no wonder we feel like we can’t budge an inch on any hard-won policies that affect our health and our autonomy and our agency. They already want to take so much away from us (from the little we have). Even the thought of encouraging women to tell the fathers about the pregnancy brings up all kinds of problems, not just in terms of freedom, but also real-life dangerous situations. What about domestic violence, abusive partners, or even incest? There are simply too many ways in which women can potentially get screwed with even the thought of having to involve men in pregnancy discussions.
But the truth is that pregnancies affect everybody. If a woman misses her birth control dose and gets pregnant, any decision she makes could affect a man who is an integral part of her life. That doesn’t mean we should therefore sacrifice her life and choices, but it does mean that we can’t shut men out of the abortion debate completely. We can’t tell them it’s none of their business, or that it doesn’t affect them at all.
There is no silver bullet here. No equal split of responsibilities and rights and freedoms that will perfectly cope with the way biology has dealt its hand. But there are situations in our society that affect everybody, as well as society itself, and we need to have all the facts and all the opinions on the table in order to give everyone the chance to make the best decisions they can for themselves and their families.
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