Transcending Ovaries: Toward Male Equality in the Abortion Debate

During last week's heated debate in Florida's House of Representatives over a misguided measure to require pregnant woman to pay for an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion, Representative Janet Long of Tampa, a progressive and highly-regarded member of the Democratic caucus, made a statement in opposition to the bill that was as rhetorically compelling as it was intellectually concerning. She told opponents: "Stand down if you don't have ovaries." The remark proved memorable enough that it was picked up by New York Times opinion columnist Charles Blow, whose otherwise excellent Op-Ed on the wave of anti-abortion legislation that is sweeping through state legislatures made an explicit endorsement of this sentiment. The underlying premise seems to be that since women are the ones forced to bring unwanted fetuses to term when abortion rights are curtailed, they have a greater stake in the outcome of such debates -- and therefore more right to influence policy on the subject. I can sympathize with the frustration that might lead to such an outlook. At the same time, as someone without ovaries who has written and marched for reproductive freedom through my entire professional life, and who has been threatened repeatedly as a result, I fear the ongoing effort to frame the abortion debate primarily in gender terms remains both politically unwise and ethically unsound. Rather than urging men to stand down, abortion-rights advocates should reach out to convince men that they have a deep and equal stake in preserving reproductive choice. An unfortunate public perception -- advanced by the media and abortion opponents, but all too often accepted by feminist organizations -- is that abortion rights are inherently and primarily a women's issue. This is actually a dangerous concession to those who would restrict or criminalize abortion. Any meaningful philosophical or policy debate over abortion should begin with the question: When, if ever, does a fetus acquire enough "personhood" to limit significantly the rights of another human being? For if fetuses did possess the same degree of "personhood" as born people, then no rational thinker would favor abortion rights. Instead, abortion would be akin to a situation in which one of two conjoined twins sought to murder the other in the name of personal freedom. Those who favor abortion rights presumably share my belief that fetuses do not possess "personhood"-- that they are not meaningfully human. That is very different from declaring that fetuses are fully-realized human beings, but women should be able to abort them anyway. Defining abortion as a "women's issue" all too easily enables opponents to characterize the struggle as one between the "rights of the mother" and the "rights of the child" -- which, to pro-choice thinkers, it most certainly is not. Often, this leads abortion-rights advocates to be perceived as agents of identity politics, as part of a special interest group (i.e. women) promoting its private agenda. Rather than "winning" the abortion debate, efforts to tag abortion opponents as bigoted against women merely cloud the underlying issues. For example, the proposition that it is sexist for states to pay for Viagra but not for abortion, which one hears all too often in liberal circles, sounds speciously appealing, but is actually rather reductive and shows a stunning inability to grapple with the ideology of abortion opponents. (If one believes abortion kills babies, as some folks sincerely do, of course the taxpayers shouldn't pay for it.) I can think of hundreds of powerful reasons why the government should pay for abortions--but the frequent claim that it's sexist to pay for ED drugs, but not pregnancy termination, or even women's contraceptives, is so deeply illogical and philosophically simplistic that it actually adds to the challenge of making the case for public funding. When pro-choice advocates emphasize the leading role that men play in organizations opposed to abortion, they compound this perception. It is certainly true that a sizeable number of anti-abortion leaders are bankrolled by, and subservient to, the Vatican, and that Pope Ratzinger reserves all meaningful positions of power in his church hierarchy for men. However, many of the most radical critics of abortion rights are women, including Operation Rescue's Cheryl Sullenger and the Army of God's Shelley Shannon -- not to mention the nation's most outspoken (if not articulate) abortion opponent, Sarah Palin. To say that Antonin Scalia opposes Roe v. Wade because he lacks ovaries does little to explain the jurisprudence of Harry Blackmun or William Brennan. I do not know exactly what percentage of anti-abortion leaders are male or female, a meaningless figure that inevitably varies based upon how one defines the sample. But I am confident that describing 77% of anti-abortion leaders as men, as one popular T-shirt does, is not particularly relevant, and is possibly even counterproductive. So why should abortion rights matter to men? The most obvious and dramatic reason, although likely not the most persuasive, is that the lives lost through illegal abortions will be of our sisters and daughters and partners. I have often heard that interest described as "secondary" -- after all, some naysayers ask, how can one compare a woman's interest in her own life or health with a male relative's interest in her wellbeing? The reality is that many males do value of the lives of their loved ones, and particularly their daughters, as much as their own. Needless to say, so do women. To put the matter more bluntly: I know many men who would gladly suffer a slow death themselves if it could prevent their wives or girlfriends or daughters from succumbing to septic shock on a mattress in an underground abortion clinic. Anyone who argues that men don't merit an equal voice in the abortion debate does a grave disservice to these fathers and brothers and partners. The second reason that abortion is a men's issue is that the entire sexual revolution, from which boys benefit as much as girls, relies heavily upon the right of pregnant women to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Couples, both single and married, would risk intimacy with considerably less frequency -- and would deny themselves one of life's greatest pleasures -- if they knew that the outcome might be a child that they had no desire to bear or raise. Personally, I would never have intercourse with a woman unless I were highly confident that she would terminate a pregnancy that we were not both ready for. If the law were ever changed to prohibit that option, I doubt that I would have sex with anyone until I was prepared to start a family. Recognizing that no form of birth control is ever foolproof, not even the rhythm method, I imagine most intelligent, responsible men and women, if denied an opportunity for legal termination, would make a similar decision to forgo certain forms of sex. In fact, many abortion opponents relish the prospect of rolling back the sexual progress of the 1960s and 1970s. Pro-choice women would do well to emphasize this to their lovers. These women could take a page from Aristophanes, whose play Lysistrata relates how the women of Greece deny their husbands sexual privileges until they agree to abstain from warfare. If pro-choice women consistently refused to sleep with anti-choice men, or even men who were indifferent or who voted for anti-choice candidates for non-abortion-related reasons, they might be stunned to discover how many new recruits entered the abortion rights movement. Incidentally, if you are single, looking, and reading this, I urge you to add "Pro-Choice Only" to your next personal ad. Men also have a clear stake in the large-scale social consequences of criminalizing abortion. Assuming all heterosexual couples who did not want children were unable or unwilling to remain celibate, our society would soon swarm with a costly and tragic plague of unwanted children. Inevitably, many of these kids would suffer from severe birth defects -- diseases or disabilities which, with the legalization of abortion, we have made great strides toward eradicating. Taxes and health care costs would inevitably rise to pay for the care of these victims. Other unwanted offspring would compel parents--and here, I suspect the majority might indeed be mothers -- to forgo the educational and professional opportunities that best enable them to raise strong families. Professors John Donahue of Yale and Steven Levitt of the University of Chicago, writing in "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime," and in subsequent research, have even made a persuasive (albeit controversial) argument that criminalizing abortion could lead to increases in violent crime. In short, banning abortion would have significantly negative social consequences that extend well beyond the bedroom. Many of these consequences, although certainly not all, would harm males as much as females. Arguing that men should have equal say in the abortion debate is not the same thing as claiming that men should have a say as to whether a particular woman, such as a wife or daughter, has an abortion. As a default policy, they should not. But when, if ever, men should have a say at this personal level is a challenge that neither pro-choicers nor society has yet fully grappled with. For example, should a surrogate mother be able to contract away her right to have an abortion? Under what circumstances? Would enforcing such a contract reduce liberty by restricting bodily autonomy or vindicate liberty by increasing the power that women have to make binding choices regarding their bodies? These are challenging bio-ethical questions, even for the most progressive advocates of abortion rights. Certainly men deserve a seat at the table when these issues are discussed. Increasingly, pro-choice activists are noting the political downside of relegating men to second-class status in abortion discourse. As Amanda Marcotte, a blogger, recently told Newsweek: "When the anti-choice side pulls energy from both men and women who are eager to halt sexual liberation and control female bodies, and pro-choicers can only look to women, we're already running at half capacity." That is indeed salient political wisdom. But it would be unfortunate if men merely became an auxiliary force in the abortion-rights movement -- or if they were relegated to the sort of secondary role that women have been historically, all too often, in other progressive political movements. After all, the abortion controversy is not merely a political debate over the rights of women. It is an ethical and social conflict over how we choose to shape our society and a defining struggle for the soul of our civilization. One does not have to fear carrying an unwanted fetus in order to have a meaningful opinion about when live begins, any more than one has to be a slave in order to speak on behalf of the joys of freedom. The reason that Janet Long's adversaries in the Florida legislature should "stand down" is because they are wrong about abortion -- not because of what they have between their legs. First printed in the Huffington Post, May 1, 2010. Reprinted with permission.