Civil Liberties

Aborting Equality

Men's odd place in the abortion debate.


The 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January evoked the usual rhetoric from the usual suspects: anti-abortion activists lamenting the slaughter of fetuses, feminists lamenting the threat to women's rights, cautious language from the president about respect for life. But in all the commentary, little attention was paid to one crucial aspect of the issue: how the availability of abortion affects relations between men and women.

Pro-choicers see legal abortion as essential to gender equality, a guarantee that a woman can enjoy sexual freedom just like a man, without an unwanted pregnancy disrupting her career or education. As one Planned Parenthood pamphlet puts it, the basic issue is, "Should women make their own decisions about family, career and how to live their lives?" Men are rarely mentioned in pro-choice commentary, except to celebrate women's freedom from male control over their reproductive lives—though supportive partners of women who have abortions may sometimes be acknowledged as well.

On the pro-life side, abortion is depicted as the epitome of several purported feminist evils: selfish and unwomanly careerism, the decline of motherly qualities, and the liberation of women from "natural distinctions" between the sexes. At the same time, in keeping with the popular conservative theme that women are oppressed by liberation, anti-abortion activists have increasingly depicted women who have abortions as victims of a society that undervalues motherhood—and of selfish, irresponsible boyfriends. Their rhetoric occasionally refers to bereaved fathers of aborted "babies" but more often invokes evil males for whom legal abortion makes it easy to seduce and abandon women.

A few maverick activists and commentators have argued that, in fact, the current legal situation puts men and women on a footing that is far from equal—and is blatantly stacked in favor of women. Women have reproductive rights, and men have reproductive responsibilities.

If a woman gets pregnant and does not want to be a mother, she can end the pregnancy with or without her partner's knowledge. If she wants to have the baby, she can force the father to pay child support—so that, as lawyer Melanie McCulley pointed out in a 1998 article for The Journal of Law and Policy, he "does not have the luxury, after the fact of conception, to decide that he is not ready for fatherhood."

Once, biology colluded with male privilege to ensure that women were largely the ones who paid the price (often a heavy one) for illicit sex. Scientific and social progress has changed that: Even as reliable contraception and legal abortion allowed women to control reproduction, their ability to hold absentee fathers financially liable was enhanced by new methods of establishing paternity and by friendlier laws.

The issue of men's reproductive rights occasionally surfaces in largely symbolic legal cases. In August 2002 a Philadelphia man, John Stachokus, obtained a temporary court injunction barring his former girlfriend Tanya Meyers from having an abortion—much to the dismay of feminists and pro-choicers, who called the decision "an abuse of the legal system" and "a disgrace." A few days later, the judge dissolved the order. Had he not, it undoubtedly would have been reversed on emergency appeal, like a handful of other such court orders issued in the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, a few men fighting paternity suits have argued, so far unsuccessfully, that "forced parenthood" denies men equal protection. Peter Wallis, a New Mexico real estate broker, made headlines in 1998 when he sued ex-girlfriend Kellie Smith for "intentionally acquiring and misusing" his bodily fluids by getting pregnant against his wishes. The case was quickly tossed out. Even victories by men whose child support obligations resulted from deception—when the woman lied about using birth control or even, in one bizarre case, used a syringe to inseminate herself with semen collected in a condom—have been struck down on appeal.

Public opinion has been generally unsympathetic to men in such cases. Men who want to stop their partners from having abortions are seen as domineering patriarchs. Men who want to avoid paying child support are seen as irresponsible playboys. But it's not always so simple.

Very few studies have looked at the men implicated in unwanted pregnancies. Drexel University sociologist Arthur Shostak and journalist Gary McLouth surveyed 1,000 men in abortion clinic waiting rooms and did some in-depth interviews for the 1984 book Men and Abortion: Lessons, Losses, and Love. They found that in most cases ending the pregnancy was a mutual decision, and only 5 percent of the men didn't want the abortion—though nearly half of the single and divorced men said that they had suggested getting married and having the baby.

As for the roughly 50 percent of men who don't show up at the clinics, various estimates cited by Shostak and McLouth suggest that while some fit the stereotype of the feckless runaway male, a significant percentage oppose the abortion or are too upset about it to come along. As many as one in six men are never told about the pregnancy or the abortion.

Occasionally, wrenching personal stories appear in articles on the subject, such as one published a few years ago in the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record. One man profiled in the article said he was an emotional wreck for several years after his fiancée had two abortions without consulting him; the second time, she had assured him she wanted the child, then walked out on him after an argument and terminated the pregnancy.

And the flip side? A girl who gets pregnant in high school can decide that she's not ready for motherhood. If her male classmate gets his partner pregnant, he can spend the next 21 years paying for an unwanted child, to the detriment of his education, his career, and his ability to have a family of his own. Yet if he complains about his predicament, the typical response is "You play, you pay"—uncannily similar to the attitude of some abortion opponents who say that if women want to exercise "choice" they should just keep their legs together.

Given biological realities, it may be impossible to come up with a solution that wouldn't be unfair to someone. The current situation is indeed inequitable to men. But allowing a paternal veto raises the disturbing specter of giving a man authority over a woman's body. Allowing men to renounce paternity obligations means that a woman who wants to avoid unwanted parenthood has to undergo surgery or drug treatment while a man merely has to fill out some forms. One could argue that 21 years of child support is a greater burden than nine months of pregnancy, but bodily autonomy is generally seen as a more fundamental value than the financial kind.

One can argue for some legal reforms—for instance, requiring that the prospective father be notified of an abortion (with exemptions for cases of domestic violence or rape), though any such measure would require the Supreme Court to reverse its 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling. Limiting a mother's ability to collect child support when the pregnancy results from deceit, or to sue for retroactive support after waiting years to let the man know he has fathered a child, should be feasible as well.

The most important change may be cultural. Abortion can create a radical imbalance rather than equality between the sexes, giving women unilateral power over a reproductive process that involves two people. Can men be expected to be full partners in child rearing but mere bystanders in pregnancy?

In the feminist classic Backlash, Susan Faludi cites a 1990 poll in which nearly 40 percent of women said that "in making a decision about whether to have an abortion, the man involved should not even be consulted" as welcome evidence of women's embrace of reproductive freedom. She also chided men for not shouldering their load as fathers. But if men's parental role is to be taken seriously, we need, at the very least, a cultural consensus that women have a moral obligation to involve their partners in their reproductive decisions.