Men and Reproductive Freedom

I went to a conference on morality and the judicial system this past weekend.  I have been really interested in law and civil society and its ethical implications, so I knew I would be very interested in this particular symposium.  In the first break out session I attended, surrounding marriage equality and reproductive freedom, a lot of the focus was on the recent civil unions debate here in Hawaii.  At least one person asked a question pertaining to abortion and women’s rights.  The response from the panelist was brief, and in my opinion, quite muted; not really getting into much of anything of any import.  I managed to ask the final question;

Where do the rights of men enter the discussion of reproductive freedom?

My question may seem loaded, and in that case maybe it is.  I have several close friends and a few acquaintances who consider themselves feminists, and I always seem to part ways with them on the issue of abortion and the man’s role in the birthing process.  My own understanding of the reason for that is that much of the feminist perspective, when insisting upon the exclusive right of a woman to decide the fate of an unborn child (heretofore referred to platonically as a “fetus”), are actually doing so in a sexist manner.  That is, to favor one sex over and above another with out challenge.  Some may refute this accusation, but it remains to be clearly articulated how any person may advance the exclusive privilege of any individual based upon any protected identity (AKA “suspect classification”), such as sex, at the direct expense of another and call it anything but an “ism.”

I will not at this time deliberate at much length on this topic, though I publicly welcome comments and concerns, as long as they are not unreasonably accusatory, reactive or irrational.  I will, however, recreate a conversation I had with a woman in between breaks at this conference, which proved to be a light hearted, honest discourse about this volatile issue.  I will jump right to the discussion.


Woman:  “What prompted you to pose that question?”

Me: “Well, I am a man.  This is a field in which I feel incredibly oppressed by the lack of equal access to birthing decisions, including abortion.  It does not seem to serve justice to exclude the father from such an important decision, one involving the life of his offspring. Furthermore, I am greatly disturbed by the legal definitions imposed upon the situation, we are basically claiming that a woman’s body is something like property, which she somehow has exclusive rights to do with as she pleases.”

W: “But does she not have the right to her own body?”

M: “To an extent.  I mean, suicide is technically illegal; there are limits to what one may do to one’s body, even in the privacy of one’s own home.  I am not in favor of criminalizing abortion, but I do not think that the idea of ‘her own body’ is even really in play here.  She would not be pregnant if not for the man.  From a legal perspective, if we are to reduce this to a property rights issue, then half the fetus belongs to the man! [with a smile]”

W: “But wouldn’t you agree that the woman, having to carry the baby to term, should have a higher degree of decision making power?”

M: “But that is to the detriment of the man, it is a punishment without a crime.  There is nothing I can do to put the baby in my body, nor is there anything a woman can do about being the sex to carry the fetus to term.  Biological reality should not be the basis for distributing power, any more than it should be the basis for granting the right to, say, civil unions.  I can’t be blamed for being born a man any more than a woman can a woman.”

W: “But you brought up the idea of rights, are not rights distributed unequally by civil authorities?”

M: “Wait, aren’t we at a conference about getting the government out of the bedroom?  Besides, we’re speaking on ideological terms, about what should be, not necessarily what is.  I grant that abortion should not be criminalized, but that does not mean I think it should be occurring at the rate it does, for example.”

W: “So abortion is wrong?  Is this a discussion about morality?”

M: “No, not necessarily.  I do allow myself to be formed by my morals, but I don’t have the expectation that others are bound by my interpretation of what is right or wrong.  However, because I think opinions should be open to public scrutiny, I do think that if an abortion is elective in the sense that it is done at the will of an individual based upon little more than the desire of freedom from the biological consequence of sexual intercourse, than yes, I think it is wrong. But I may make the same argument against liposuction; I do not think that because we can deploy medical interventions, that we should, or that such interventions somehow magically become justified.”

W: “When did this become a conversation about sex?”

M: “Any discussion about fertility is necessarily a discussion about sex.  Anyone considering an abortion has had sex.  I think that is self-evident, is it not?”

W: “Well, I don’t think it has to be…”

M: “Who do you know of that has ever had an immaculate abortion? [jokingly]”

W: “So is your objection about sex or abortions?”

M: “Well, both, really. The two are inextricably tied to one another, aren’t they?”

W: “I guess so, but what does this have to do with sex?”

M: “Well, that is probably a much longer conversation, but hopefully it will suffice to say that in our culture we approach sex entirely too casually, like it is free.  But it isn’t.  You only have to look toward sexually transmitted infections and the very subject of our own mini debate to realize that.  I think maybe that same attitude is extended post-coitus; abortions are thought to be emotionally free and should remain so.  But women I talk to agree that abortions are tough decisions, never an easy out.  What is free about that? Besides, isn’t it a more than a little objectifying to think of your sexual partner as nothing more than the tool by which you expect to achieve orgasm? If that is what the sexual revolution offers, consider me a lobsterback.”

W: “Okay, so how does this all relate to the rights of man in reproductive freedom?”

M: “From everything I have heard, there is this weird assumption that women are the only ones who are entitled to reproductive freedom.  This does not seem just.  It is not okay that there is such a glaring inequality that exists in our society.  If a woman chooses to abort a fetus, it should never be left to her sole discretion, anymore than many men take it to be their sole discretion to leave the woman at will.  It should be a joint decision, just as sex was in each case [I feel that rape is an acceptable reason by which to abort, and this was expressed in the course of the conversation].  Each of them made the choice to engage in the biological act that created the fetus, therefore each should have an equal say the act that would destroy it.  If they cannot agree, it should be brought before a neutral third party, I guess.”

W: “But we’re getting the government out of the bedroom, right?”

M: “The third party can and probably should be a personal connection.  I have a general distrust of governments anyway.”


In the end, neither one of us seemed very much moved beyond our original position.  That’s ok, it’s not about winning debates, its about having a calm, rational conversation.  I’m not interested in telling women they should or should not have access to abortions.  I do, however, have an interest in sharing an oft-unheard perspective, that of the man who is willing and able to bring the child to term and provide a loving home.  Of course, that is not always the case, but it should be considered nonetheless.  Until that is the norm, I’m sure we will continue to have plenty to debate about…

9 thoughts on “Men and Reproductive Freedom

  1. I guess the problem is you could have the problem whereby the woman is forced against her will to have the child because the man wants her to.

    • well, it is my hope that neither of them would have sole discretion, including the man. if the woman declines and the man insists, there would have to be some kind of neutral party who makes some kind of call based on health of the baby, mother, and the relationship itself, i suppose.
      but i also think that we should in some way encode this stuff into law; if the man insists and woman does not, than the man becomes legally bound to the child until the age of majority and the woman does not, perhaps. in the inverse case, if the woman has the baby electively, then she becomes bound legally until the age of majority (the father too would be bound if he agrees). i say this because it is now relatively common for the woman to not tell the man (which is understandable in some cases), but then many years later expect retroactive financial support. this seems to be unreasonably detrimental to the man, who should have some recourse but at this time does not.

      • To be honest, I think you underestimate the costs and risks associated with being a pregnant woman. It seems to me it is more akin to the relationship between a badly injured soldier and a comrade carrying him to safety. The comrade might have a code of honour that means he doesn’t leave anyone behind. He might truly want to do everything possible to carry his friend to safety.

        But at the end of the day, the injured soldier cannot insist.

        I don’t think there is reproductive equality nor is that it is desirable to have it. A man should never be able to insist that a woman reproduces unless she agrees. If she doesn’t, I’m afraid it is tough on the man and no legal system should be able to say otherwise.

        I agree though that the way it works out is often a mess and sometimes to the detriment of the man. But again, in the long run it is normally the man who avoids his responsibilities and normally the woman who is left holding the baby.

        • im not sure im making the connection with the injured soldier – is that the woman or the man…?

          as for equality, i would agree that it may never be equal (as nothing truly is equal), though it should be equitable. that is why this really is a discussion about rights; which by and large do not exist at all for a man. for example, say a woman carries a baby to term without the consent of the man – should he then be held liable against his will (as the woman would in your example?)

          one story that was shared at the conference was a woman who carried to term, did not inform the father, and collected retroactive child support (i realize that often there are justifiable reasons for this). it seems to me that the woman holds some amount of obligation to inform the father if she then desires to incur a financial liability. in my example, would it not be reasonable that, after some kind of statute of limitations, the woman loses that ability? as the law stands now, this is a loophole that has been verifiably exploited (consider for example that the man would have desired to have raised the child and was robbed of this opportunity, and yet must be reduced to mere cash transactions. btw, custody is rarely offered, or even hinted at, in theses cases). this, of course, is not necessarily common, but it illustrates the fact that we are nowhere near equity.

        • oh, and i would also say that consent is inherent in the act of coitus (given it is consensual). both have entered into a kind of social contract by merit of their procreative act. i would think that any adult woman realizes the burden of conception that sex often incurs… therein you will find her consent to bear children, i would think.

          • Mmm.. well I was thinking of the implicit suggestion that a soldier should save his comrade and then the implicit suggestion that a father could in any way insist on a birth.

            I don’t think many would agree with you that intercourse is effectively a contract for consenting to have children.

            • part of my intention is to break down this weird barrier we put up between sex and procreation. any time a responsible adult engages in intercourse, they cannot be unaware of the fact that it may very well result in a pregnancy. to claim that sex is separate from child birth is quite a peculiar position to attempt to defend. it must assume that sex is free and fun, with no emotional, relational import whatsoever…

              btw, i do not mean a strictly binding contract in a legal sense, but a reasonably assured understanding based in natural reality – similarly, if one consumes nothing but fatty foods, there is an inherent consent, a concession if you will (knowledge that such behavior will lead), to weight gain. i find it hard to accept a plea of ignorance in either case. can you think of anyone you know that thinks sex is naturally (biologically) without consequence?

  2. Interesting approach to this topic which I hadn’t considered before. I am interested in learning more about what other “progressive Christians” are thinking about this topic so thanks for putting your thoughts in writing! I’ve got some thoughts…

    A key component to the “isms” is power. Racism is racial prejudice + power. As a white person, I can distrust a black person and then have access to the power to enforce that. A black person might say something mean to me, but I can expect the powers that be to protect me.

    Men, unfortunately, still control the power structures in America so it’s impossible for us to be the victims of sexism. Generally speaking, and even in the case of abortion, men have lots of exclusive rights over women so I disagree that attempting to give rights back to women is sexist. Male legislators and male doctors decide if and when women (and which women) can have abortions. A particular father may not have a direct say but a whole lot of men had input into whether a woman can (or sometimes should) have an abortion.

    All that being said, I think there are still a lot of tough questions to ask. Is abortion pushed on women of color while restricted from white women? Are parental consent notifications used to cover incest and abuse? How does age of consent intersect with abortion? What about sex education?

    I also believe that the means should justify the end, that we should embody the change we wish to see. Your question about the rights of men, of not looking at women’s bodies as property, of equal consent are all important.

    A friend of mine said recently, in a response to a question about gays in the military “If you are gay or support gay people, you shouldn’t go overseas and kill other gay people.” Might we ask the same question, “If you support women, do you want to abort them?” Can we be feminists for the unborn?

    Men have done a lot of harm by women. We’ve objectified, commodified, and abused them. We rape even the ones we are married to. As gay men, we often denigrate women and their bodies. They are damned if they carry a fetus to term and damned if they don’t. It’s comfortable to start by thinking about my thoughts on what women should do. Perhaps a good place to start is how men can repent?

  3. regarding your thought that it is impossible for men to be the victims of sexism, it does not follow that as a person of historic privilege (such as myself, though i have difficulty finding where exactly i got this privilege and why i cant get rid of it) is not capable to be the victim of power/prejudice. that is merely another form of upwards oppression or reverse racism (terms that i use begrudgingly, as i take it to be semantically problematic – what construes the norm by which something is below or forward of), since even that is still a form of abuse of power – the tyranny of the minority. besides, this precise argument hinges on the popular assumption that women hold exclusive power to determine the course of an action that was undeniably the effect of a joint effort. this is in itself indeed an issue of power being wielded exclusively by one (biological females) over another (biological males).

    furthermore, it is a murky argument to assume that it is only male legislators and doctors who are in decisive positions of power (i mean, there are women in congress and in the medical profession). and what is at stake is power, not rights. rights are supposed to be distributed equally, which is why i propose more clear legal expectations of both the man and the woman in a relationship. this is indeed an issue of power, not merely a case of rights, if it were, there would be no objection to deliberating those of men. that was the very foundation of my initial question, that the issue of the man’s rights is apparently absent the discussion. while i do not deny that men hold a disproportionate amount of legislative control (none of whom are me), that does not necessarily justify some kind of tit-for-tat wherein the rights of some men are sacrificed for the sins of a few. that too is not just.

    i really appreciate your candor, brian. i would agree that many of those important questions are at play. as i told the woman at the conference, i think there are so many fundamental problems that lead up to the point that we even have a discussion about the issue of “reproductive freedom” (freedom from what? God, nature, one another, ourselves? and how is this any different from the rugged individualism we criticize within the conservative movement?). we agree on what the Point A was (healthy, intimate, interdependent relationships and a social structure that reinforced them), its so difficult to see that through all the history of hegemony, patriarchy, etc. but its there, and i wanna get back to it.

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