Men, Abortion and the Sin of Moral Arrogance

Abortion is back in the news, with a bill now before the Victorian parliament that, if it becomes law, will give women with problem pregnancies of less than twenty-four weeks the right to decide for themselves.

Whenever abortion is at issue, questions about the place of men in the debate looms large and unspoken. What role do men play in political and personal discussions about termination, and what role – morally speaking – should they play?

The facts are simple. Men dominate the politics of abortion in the same way they do all other issues. One figure puts the percentage of anti-choice leaders who are men at 77%. This is in addition to the significant influence male religious leaders like the Pope (through the Vatican’s full membership of the United Nations) have on reproductive health policy across the globe.

Even on the pro-choice side, where most leadership roles are held by women, men have been critical to the success of campaigns that give women the right to decide. MP Wayne Berry was the architect of the 2002 legislation in the ACT that treats abortion like any other medical procedure. Henry Morgentaler was key to achieving a similarly progressive law in Canada in 1988.

Problem pregnancies require decisions that touch on our most intimate experiences and values concerning sex, fertility, love and relationships. Here again, men feature large. Research shows that while the vast majority of women faced with an unplanned pregnancy don’t want counselling, they do want information from the biological father. Indeed, he is the person they are most likely to consult as they consider their choice. Does he want a child, now or ever? What role will he play in raising it? What support might he provide if she decides to go it alone? The presence of a man willing to engage in such discussions, and the answers he gives, will critically affect the woman’s decision.

So men do play a critical role in abortion politics and abortion decisions. The question is, should they?

Men’s role in the decisions individual women make about problem pregnancies is a simple fact of life to which no “ought” can or should be applied.

But before you can determine the proper role of men in the political debate, you must recognise the fact that-at the end of the day-a decision about continuing or terminating a pregnancy is not open to compromise. You can’t have half a baby or half an abortion. While women in functioning, non-violent relationships do tend to consult the biological father, ultimately one person’s view must prevail. The law privileges the woman’s decision because the bodily experience of pregnancy and birth invest her more heavily in the outcome.

It is also her call because, short of making a pregnant woman the biological father’s slave, there would be no way to enforce his right to decide other than giving him the power to wrestle her on to the surgical table (if she wants to continue and he wants to terminate) or snapping a collar on her and handing him the lead (if she wants to terminate and he wants to continue).

Does men’s disconnect from the risk and experience of pregnancy and birth disqualify them from political activism on the issue? Part of the answer turns on the weight you give to experience.

Imagine a woman-led and dominated group that sought to deny men access to safe and legal vasectomies on the grounds that the procedure is dangerous, that men might come to regret their decision and that vasectomies reduce the number of babies being born that infertile couples would be more than happy to raise.

Do we think such a group is legitimate? That its views should hold sway on the laws passed by parliament? Or do the demands of such an organisation with regard to a procedure so intimately bound up with men’s bodies and lives strike you as inappropriate, patronising and domineeringly presumptive?

For me, it’s the latter. But I would feel differently if such a female-dominated group came into being in a world where men were struggling to achieve the legal right to choose safe vasectomy, and the group’s aims were to help men gain control over an issue so critical to their bodies and lives.

What matters, in other words, is not that men are involved but how they are involved.

Men lack moral standing in the abortion debate-indeed are guilty of moral arrogance-when they push for control over a procedure they’ll never have to have because they can’t get pregnant.

But when men implicitly acknowledge their lesser standing by raising their voices in support of laws that take away power from their own sex in order to give it to women, they can feel confident they are doing the right thing.

Publication history

Men, Abortion and the Sin of Moral Arrogance  The Age (Melbourne)