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Abortion and the Gender Wars
Anti-abortion politics are often seen as the ultimate patriarchal attack on women. It's not that simple.
With the prospect of Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion being either overturned or severely curtailed by the Supreme Court’s pending ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, abortion is poised to once again take center stage in the culture wars—and in feminist discourse in particular.
Given the surreal timeline we’re living in right now, it’s hard to predict exactly how this will play out. Yet it seems likely, at least, that the new prominence of abortion rights will take some of the momentum out of transgender advocacy—not so much because it’s a competing issue as because of a renewed focus on women’s rights as related to female biology.
In recent years, it’s become voguish in progressive circles to treat abortion as gender-neutral: “pregnant person” and so forth. In September, this vogue caused the ACLU digital team to alter a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg on abortion rights by replacing gender-specific terms with bracketed neutral ones.
What Ginsburg actually said, of course, was:
The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.
After an outcry, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero apologized and called the alteration “a mistake.” As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg noted, the problem with the ACLU tweet wasn’t just the obvious one that “it’s somewhat Orwellian to rewrite historical utterances to conform to modern sensitivities”; it’s also that “the erasure of gendered language” erases the Ginsburg quote’s feminist politics, in the Ginsburg-era sense of “feminist.” Ginsburg, Goldberg pointed out, “was talking not about the right of all people to pursue their own reproductive destiny, but about how male control of women’s reproductive lives makes women part of a subordinate class.”
Many younger activists insists on gender-neutral language because they argue that transgender men and nonbinary people can also be pregnant. This rhetoric, I suspect, is more about an ideological crusade to undo the “gender binary” than about being sensitive to people’s needs. The number of trans men who have abortions is likely minuscule: female-to-male transitioning typically involves hormone injections that block ovulation. (Those who want to get pregnant usually require several months off testosterone before the ovulatory cycle can resume.) A recent study estimated that as many as 530 “transgender and gender non-binary” individuals obtained abortions in the United States in 2017. That’s about 0.06 percent of the total, the vast majority of them no doubt in the “gender non-binary” category, i.e., biologically female individuals who are gender non-conforming. Should we change the language to accommodate the belief that such individuals should be classified as “not-women,” at the cost of tiptoeing around the fact that abortion is a woman’s experience very close to 100 percent of the time? This is, I would say, very much an open question.
What’s more, the language stripped of gender is much less politically potent. “This is an assault on women’s health” (or “on women’s lives,” or “on women’s control over their bodies”) packs a lot more emotional and political punch than the same phrase where “women” is replaced with “people,” because of a combination of chivalry (danger to women is more shocking and outrageous because women are particularly deserving of protection) and feminism (women are under assault because they are women). If abortion is no longer a women’s issue but a “people issue,” the pro-choice movement loses one of its key arguments: that moves to curtail access to abortion are about patriarchal and misogynistic oppression of women. If the issue is a gender-neutral right to make one’s reproductive decisions, it could even open the door to the longstanding “men’s rights” argument that biological fathers should have the right, up until a certain point in the woman’s pregnancy, to terminate their obligations to a soon-to-be-born child.
Here’s the plot twist: as much as I dislike the discourse that separates gender from biology, I actually don’t think that “patriarchy” or “men telling women what they can do with their bodies” is a good framework for the discussion of abortion.
Yes, “what about pregnant men” is a stupid line. But “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament” (in the words of Gloria Steinem in 1971) is only slightly less stupid. If men could get pregnant, then the word “men” would mean what the word “women” currently means: individuals of the sex that produces ova and/or bears the young.
Historically, women’s subordination has generally exacerbated the unequal burdens imposed by reproductive biology. But some very patriarchal societies have condoned abortion (e.g., ancient Greece and Rome), and it’s certainly possible to imagine a matriarchal but strongly pro-natalist society that bans it in most cases. Women can control other women’s reproduction as effectively and ruthlessly as men can. And the idea that male-dominated governments have historically looked out for the individual rights of the general mass of males is also a bit of a joke. You could easily do a men’s rights version of the Steinem line: If it was women who got drafted, war would be a crime. (The total number of American women who died in Vietnam was eight, to 58,000 men.) Obviously this isn’t an exact equivalency; women are not immune from the direct effects of war, while no (cisgender) men are directly affected by pregnancy. But the point is, male-dominated societies have not exactly shied away from doing things that rob large numbers of males of personal autonomy, and very often life.
Abortion, generally speaking, is not an issue that pits men against women. As Megan McArdle notes, polls consistently show that this is one issue on which there is little if any divergence of opinion between women and men; there is even some evidence that men are slightly more pro-choice, perhaps because they believe that it’s not their business to tell women what to do with their bodies. If the legality of abortion were to be decided by referendum, it’s quite possible that the pro-choice side would get less favorable results if only women could vote.
Women have been actively involved in the right-to-life movement at all levels; the Mississippi law in the current case before the Supreme Court was drafted by a female legislator, registered nurse Becky Currie, and co-sponsored by three other female legislators. (While only a quarter of the bill’s sponsors are women, that’s a substantially higher percentage than in the state legislature as a whole.) To see these women as little more than patriarchal tools is more than a bit insulting. It is also worth noting that at least since the 1990s if not earlier, pro-life discourse largely shifted from demonizing women who kill their babies so they can selfishly pursue liberation to treating women as the victims and men as the villains who were “liberated” to pursue consequence-free sex, exploit women, and bully them into terminating pregnancies. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some “red states” prove more willing to attempt punitive measures against men who facilitate their partners’ abortions than against the women themselves. (In fact, that’s true of the Texas law which allows abortion providers and facilitators to be sued by “citizen enforcers”—but not the women themselves.)
So where do men belong in the abortion debate? I know women (by no means radical feminists) who strongly believe the answer is “nowhere,” because male bodies are not at stake. As a pro-choice feminist, I strongly disagree. Yes, on a purely visceral level, I get the “STFU” reaction to a man opining that carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term is not a big deal, or that sometimes we’re all called upon to make sacrifices for the greater good. But it’s only marginally less irritating when Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett suggests that being able to opt out of parenthood post-birth with adoption and “safe haven” laws should resolve the issue. (To be fair, the full text of Barrett’s remarks shows she was speaking specifically with regard to “ways in which forced parenting, forced motherhood, would hinder women's access to the workplace and to equal opportunities,” highlighted in the amici briefs in Dobbs.) Arguably, Barrett, an adoptive mother, speaks from her own vantage point that is as blind as the stereotypical male perspective to the physical experience of undergoing an unwanted pregnancy.
In the end, though, the only way we can defend the basic principles of a liberal society is to insist that everyone has the right to have and express an opinion on anything, whether or not it can affect her or him in the most direct way. Otherwise, not only men but postmenopausal (or sterilized) women would be shut out of the abortion debates, and women and older men would have no voice in discussions of American foreign commitments that could lead to military engagement. (Despite women’s enhanced roles in the military today, the odds of female soldiers being in ground combat remain very low; despite the prominence of female soldiers in the war in Iraq, only 2.4 percent of the casualties were women.) It’s only a small step from this to “white women should shut up on the subject of police brutality except as allies to Black Lives Matter.”
As human beings, we have the capacity to understand other people’s experiences through reason and sympathy. I have never been pregnant. (At least I don’t think so; there was one late period that could have been an early miscarriage. It was late enough that I had time to start panicking and thinking about abortion, because my then-boyfriend was definitely not dad material.) But seeing close friends go through wanted pregnancy and childbirth made me acutely aware of what an ordeal the unwanted experience would be. I have no doubt that men learn the same lesson from the women in their lives: wives, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, friends.
That’s one side of the issue. The other side that’s missing from the discussion is the touchy subject of men’s experiences with abortion and fatherhood—and of men’s reproductive rights.
It’s touchy because there’s always an instinct to draw a moral equation. Is it “as bad” to be forced into fatherhood (legal child support obligations and, for many men, a personal sense of obligation to maintain a connection to a child one has fathered) as it is to be forced into motherhood, especially for women for whom adoption is either unacceptable or traumatic? Short answer: No. Long answer: No, but the non-equivalence doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about involuntary fatherhood at all.
I first wrote about the issue of “men’s choice” for Salon in 2000; at the time, I pointed out that pro-choice feminists often start to sound like pro-lifers (“You have a choice: keep it in your pants!”) when a man says it’s not fair that a woman can terminate a pregnancy but he’s stuck with 21 years of child support payments, often with a severe impact on his educational prospects or ability to form a family. Again, “not the same thing” doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered at all. Here, one could also point out that courts have been extremely unsympathetic for biological fathers’ requests for waivers of child support obligations even in cases involving “conception by deception” (i.e., lies about being on the birth control pill) or other circumstances showing that they did not voluntarily assume the risk of causing a pregnancy. (In an Alabama case in the 1990s, the courts denied relief to the child support obligor despite considerable evidence that the mother bragged about having sex with him after he had passed out from drinking and saying that it “saved [her] a trip to the sperm bank.” Even more bizarrely, courts in at least two cases have ruled against men who became fathers when their partners artificially inseminated themselves with sperm retrieved from condoms used during oral sex.)
There is the converse as well: men who are denied wanted fatherhood, through either abortion or adoption. Again, my argument isn’t that a man should be able to stop a woman from having an abortion. (We properly regard bodily autonomy and integrity as far more sacrosanct than control over one’s money and other property.) It’s that these are moral questions that deserve to be taken seriously. When I did interviews for my 2000 article, a couple of men involved in father advocacy pointed out that currently, a man is expected to embrace fatherhood if his pregnant partner wants to have the baby, then flip a switch, as it were, and “shut down all of his emotional bonding to the child” if she decides to have an abortion.
Yes, a lot of “men’s rights” rhetoric on these issues has misogynistic undertones, portraying women as either conniving sperm-stealing succubi or callous baby-murdering sluts. But nasty, hateful rhetoric really isn’t limited to any side of the reproductive rights wars. Both pro-life conservatives and pro-choice feminists routinely portray men as selfish, abusive, and exploitative.
Ultimately, the question is: Do we take fatherhood seriously or not? The norms of modern parenthood certainly suggest we do. The norms related to abortion and adoption suggest we don’t. Is the grief and loss of giving up a baby for adoption, for instance, exclusive to women because of the physical bond formed during the pregnancy? Doesn’t that logic also lend itself to the argument that it’s natural for women but not men to center their lives around parenthood because the mother-child—but not father-child—bond is so powerful?
(In reality, life is complicated, and so are people. It would be silly to deny that in general the female experience of pregnancy and birth has something to do with mother-infant bonding. But father-infant bonding is also a reality, and one can find many individual cases in which the father has the stronger bond with the baby—including cases in which the mother abandons the child and the father steps in as a caregiver.)
Never mind the patriarchy; no matter how equally the law may treat men and women, they are not equally situated with regard to parenthood and abortion because of biology itself, and there is probably no way to resolve the situation without imposing a greater burden on one sex or the other. My own way to resolve it is to give women the right to abortion, at least in the first trimester, and to have broader latitude for men to relinquish parental obligations early in the pregnancy, at least in cases of deception. (For what it’s worth, the late Karen DeCrow, onetime president of the National Organization for Women, argued that the logic of Roe requires giving men that choice as a matter of course, since “autonomous women making independent decisions about their lives should not expect men to finance their choice.”)
But the conversation on this subject shouldn’t begin and end with the law. Conservatives who understand this fact talk about creating a culture of respect for life. Such a culture should also include respect for fatherhood and for male reproductive choice. It should include the understanding that we need to do what we can to prevent abortion, partly because the playing field is far more level between men and women before conception occurs. (More attention to better birth control options for men is essential, too.) It should include the understanding that when possible, men should be included in decisions about pregnancy—not given veto power, to be sure, but at least given a hearing. It should include the understanding that men, too, have their “lived experience” of pregnancy, abortion, and adoption. If we don’t want the discourse on abortion to treat the woman as merely the incubator for the fetus, we shouldn’t treat the man as merely the inseminator.