When Men Are Absent From the Debate on Abortion

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.

photo credit: Getty Images

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  • E.Anne

    Nice piece, Abigail!

    Some of the men I know hate the abortion debate for the mere fact that they feel left out regardless of their position–or find it unfair that ultimately it is the woman’s right to choose. I do think men should be included and have a vested interest in the debate, but mostly in their own relationships and on a ballot, not forcibly in the doctor’s office. Men should not be able to decide to continue a pregnancy or terminate it, both of which decisions made without the woman’s 100% support are a horrific invasion of her body.

    In consensual relationships, it is the ethical obligation (never should it be legally required) of the woman to include the father in the decision making. If women cannot trust their partners enough to discuss such an important decision, it’s likely that their relationships are damaged and irreparable already.

    A healthy relationship allows both partners to be engaged jointly in decision making and parenting, despite the legal and biological responsibility rightly given to women to choose. For the vast majority of men, when/if a man’s partner has a child, her inclusiveness and his own choices are larger determinants as to his level of engagement in fatherhood. Not the woman’s right to choose.

  • Larry Higuera

    Very interesting perspective Abby. So let me give you my old school perspective regarding men’s (sometimes boys) role regarding engagement and involvement concerning the conception of children. For one, men should always be told and made to take some part in the decision making, if only to alert them of their responsibility as well as the possibility that they may be required to provide monetary support. Secondly, women (sometimes girls), need to help these guys with the engagement process. For the most part, these guys need a GPS, road map, coaxing and other assistance just to deal with the shock factor. And don’t think for a moment that their initial instinct won’t be to run and disappear, much worse become hostile, indifferent or question whether they are the father…hence the need for full disclosure and assigned responsibility (if necessary). As for the ladies, this is not a time to let the decision making become a dictatorial mandate, overly emotional drama, or worse yet, a romance noir…as practicality and core values must rule their decisions…the old guy has spoken!

  • George Horta III

    Men aren’t given any consideration regarding the birth of a child.
    Men rarely win custody of their children in divorces. Statistics demonstrate a clear preference for woman in these type of cases.
    In many states, paternity doesn’t even have to be proven in order to win child support from a long term partner.
    Alarmingly, there is a marginalization of a mans role in child rearing; “I don’t need a man” syndrome.

    Unquestionably, men are set up to be disengaged and uninvolved in the lives of there children.

    Unfortunately, the type of man that would put themselves in a position where the subject of abortion arises, and their consideration not taken into account, is not likely involved in a healthy and committed relationship to begin with.

    I think in the end, women should have the final say regarding pregnancy. But it seems like we work awfully hard as a society, to completely alienate fathers at every turn.