This morning I got into a Twitter discussion with feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte about her recent article mocking Men's Rights Activists, and came smack up against the limits of what can be discussed in 140 character snippets, so this very long post is an attempt to outline my thinking on a touchy subject.
There was a lot to like about her article. I agree wholeheartedly that the way to address most MRAs' concerns is more feminism. And MRAs are eminently mockable misogynists. But I confessed to her that I was disappointed that she didn't grapple with some of the more meaningful and tricky questions that MRAs raise, offering feminist alternatives to their horrific solutions.
The key example in my mind is that MRAs commonly propose that fathers be given strong legal rights to control a partner's decision to have an abortion. “She shouldn't be able to abort my baby without my consent,” and “I should be able to make her abort a fetus if I don't want that baby.”
This invasion of women making decisions about their own bodies is of a piece with countless patriarchal invasions of womens’ autonomy; it casts women as empty vessels for the exercise of men's wills. I take it as beyond debate that women's right to control their own bodies and destinies requires that women have total autonomous discretion over abortion. A woman must not be compelled to take an unwanted pregnancy to term. A woman must not be compelled to have an abortion. That MRAs reach for these solutions reflects their misogynist contempt for women.
But I submit that MRAs are not speaking only from a desire to control women; they also have a motivating concern that I think deserves a thoughtful response. Thanks to women's access to abortion, men have categorically less control over their
reproductive parenting destiny and responsibility than women do. [Change added after the original post.]
Now it's important to note that access to abortion isn't all it should be. It's a serious problem, and for the record, I'm someone who has contributed money to NARAL and Planned Parenthood, and I mailed my first coathanger to a politician during the Reagan administration. I understand that women's control over their reproductive destiny is really only true of some women. But let's talk about those cases, which are reasonably common.
If Alice and Bob are unmarried lovers and Alice gets pregnant, she now can make a decision. If Alice does not want a child, she can abort the pregnancy without consulting Bob, however ardently he may want a child to care for. On the other hand, if she decides to bring the pregnancy to term, he is legally responsible for eighteen years of financial support, however unwilling he may be. This requirement is very strong, as demonstrated by extraordinary legal cases like a woman who fished the condom out of the wastebasket to impregnate herself.
Recall also that men have fewer birth control options than women do. There's condoms, sterilization, and abstinence. The first has a host of disadvantages; for the purposes of this discussion, most important among them their imperfect reliability. The second is permanent, and young men often have difficulty getting access to it even if they choose it. And I'll have a word about the last, beyond its obvious disadvantage, in a bit.
I have found that few women have given any real thought to the fact that men can be subject to a decision with such big consequences completely outside their control. But I assure you that most men have given this a great deal of thought. That feminists — who have a central preöccupation with reproductive rights — should ignore it is puzzling. I believe that having MRAs and creepy Cathy Young be the only folks who prepared to address this nudges otherwise reasonable men toward sympathy with MRAs and antipathy toward feminism; I really wish we had a feminist take that wasn't just dismissive.
MRAs' answer to addressing this imbalance — giving men control over the abortion decision — is unacceptable. But I submit that it is not the only possible response. I imagine a reform something like this:
- A pregnant woman has an absolute right to have an abortion or not. No one else may affect this decision.
- If a married woman gets pregnant, her husband is responsible for the support of the child if she brings it to term. That's part of the package when you get married.
- If an unmarried man gets a woman pregnant, he has a short span of time — say, 48 hours — after he learns of the pregnancy in which to decide if he's going to take responsibility for the child if she brings the pregnancy to term. If he decides he won't, he can never make a claim of any parental rights afterward. If he decides he will, he cannot change his mind afterward either. If he doesn't make an explicit decision, it defaults to him having taken responsibility. [Bold text added after original post; see Update 3 below.]
- If an unmarried woman does not inform her partner that she has gotten pregnant, he is presumptively not financially responsible for a resulting child until she informs him. If he is informed about the pregnancy after it's too late for abortion to be a meaningful option — including years after a child's birth — he has the same choice about whether to accept the package of parental responsibilities and rights, with a longer window of time in which to make the decision.
I'm not necessarily attached to this particular solution, but it's the best that I can come up with, and has a number of virtues that I do consider important. It's not equal — given the material realities, it cannot be — but it's more fairly unequal. It protects women's right to control their bodies. It ensures that neither men nor women are compelled to childrearing responsibility they didn't choose. The short decision-making window for men ensures that a woman in this situation makes a decision about what to do that's meaningfully informed. I think any serious response to this question needs to address those virtues, or justify why they're not important.
There are several responses to this kind of proposal that I find particularly galling when they come from feminists:
He should have thought of that before he had sex; he has to take responsibility for a possible baby if he engages in sex
The penny drops about abstinence. That argument isn't funny when antis say that to argue that women shouldn't be allowed to have abortions. I don't see why it should be kosher when it's applied to men; in fact I think this drifts into sexist rhetorical territory that assumes that sex is something men take from women.
You're arguing for men having more ways to walk away from supporting their children
Point taken; we have a lot of men doing that without strong enough enforcement to stop it. I agree that we need to do a categorically better job there. My proposal presumes and supports that, and I think it might help make the case that men walking out on their children are breaking a commitment they made explicitly.
This argument also implies that a pregnant woman's fetus is a “child,” and it should be obvious why that is a bad idea.
Patriarchy visits injustice against women, not men, so who cares?
Patriarchy certainly visits much more injustice against women. But I submit that this is an injustice against men. I don't believe that the reality of male privilege means that anything unjust we do against men is therefore OK.
Maybe this is unfair, but men are going to have to wait in line; there are bigger injustices to correct first
Feminists are familiar with this argument. “Your issues will have to wait until we've corrected the greater injustices of racism first.” Or the class system. Or homophobia. Or whatever. It's nonsense; we should be addressing all injustices; indeed, fighting any injustice helps address other injustices, rather than hurts.
Ms Marcotte, I hope you're reading this, because I love a lot of your work. And I hope you have a serious response; if my thinking is screwy, here, I'd like to have it laid out for me.
Over at Pandagon, Amanda Marcotte has a long post largely concerned with this question and our dialogue a about it on Twitter. (I am @miniver, she is @AmandaMarcotte.) Unhappily, I believe that she has significantly misrepresented my comments in both places.
I'll try to resist the temptation to respond point-by-point to what she says there. I think I actually predicted much of it in my original post above, and responded briefly to some key points. But the centerpiece of her argument is a clarifying description of the legal argument for abortion rights, which she says is grounded in women's bodily autonomy.
Reproductive rights are derived from the right to bodily autonomy. Becoming pregnant or impregnating another person is a big deal, so your right to exercise bodily autonomy over these aspects of your body is a fundamental right.
Abortion rights are about the right to terminate a pregnancy, not to say no to parenthood.
If abortion rights were actually about getting a “window” to say no to parenthood, then women who give birth without knowing they were pregnant would be offered this option, but they’re not.
Legally, abortion rights may not be “about” getting to say no to parenthood, but I think it's very clear that the urgent importance of abortion rights is about this very question.
A woman risking her life with a coathanger in 1955 (or 2005) isn't doing so to protect some abstract concept of her bodily autonomy. She's likely doing it out of an awareness that if she births a child she will not be able to care for it properly, and she takes that responsibility seriously enough that she'll risk her life rather than take on a responsibility she cannot meet. As an aside, I have long found it profoundly offensive that so many anti-choicers frame this as “selfishess” when it is exactly the opposite.
My fundamental argument is that, given our level of medical technology, we should think of “reproductive rights” not simply as the right to control over your reproductive organs, but the right to control over your reproductive destiny. This is not some fanciful new idea I've invented to rationalize what I want; it's as old as Margaret Sanger.
But there is a fundamental limitation in the control over their reproductive destiny that men have, because women's bodies are so much more profoundly involved in the process of reproduction that their right to bodily autonomy trumps any right men might claim. I don't know how I could have been more clear that I take that with the gravest seriousness.
Marcotte's post counters the claim by some unnamed MRAs to a right to “paper abortion,” allowing them to shirk responsibility for born children at will. She lays out the objections to this quite well, and I agree with her that this straw argument that I didn't make is awful. That's why my proposal tries to tread carefully, and creates a very tight limitation on how and when men may declaim responsibility for their offspring. It's an attempt to balance situation which is inherently imbalanced by the mechanics of reproduction. Maybe my proposal is still a lousy idea. But it isn't the lousy idea she attributes to me.
One last thing: Marcotte refers to me as
a guy claiming to be sympathetic to feminism freaking out because men don’t have “reproductive rights”
I'm not freaking out. I'm raising the point. As she says, there are a lot of other things more urgent. But it's nonetheless a real issue, and I confess that I am frustrated that it's so difficult to get to the point where we're actually talking about it.
And I confess that this “claiming” business gets right up my nose. I invite readers skeptical that I'm not at least sympathetic to feminism to check out
the contents of the feminism label on this blog [since consolidated under kulturkamph] (which applies to more stuff than my blog is configured to show you at that link; disappointingly, my attempt at a definition of feminism doesn't make the cut) and the tweet I addressed to Ms Marcotte about Victoria Woodhull just yesterday.
The Twitter conversation between Marcotte and me remains lively, and at the time I write this it has evolved to a point that better addresses my proposal here ... including some interesting criticisms of the legal implications of what I've said. When time permits, I'll find a way to transcribe the tweetstream into a relatively readable form here, and comment more thoughtfully than the Twitter medium permits.
I just added a snippet of text clarifying that a father who refuses responsibility for his offspring must do so when he learns of the pregnancy, rather than after the child is born. Evidently some MRAs advocate something like the latter meaning, calling that a “paper abortion,” an idea so stupid and mortifying that it simply hadn't occurred to me as a possible reading of what I'd described. It certainly explains why Marcotte seemed so intent on a seemingly willful misunderstanding of what I'd suggested.
Discussion here and elsewhere has made it clear to me that my original proposal was embarassingly irresponsible in failing to talk explicitly about how we should provide for children's needs. Taken in itself, giving unwilling fathers the legal power to evade responsibility for the costs of childrearing harms children. That's an unacceptable bottom line.
But if we accept that the state has a compelling interest in ensuring that children's needs are supported—and I believe that it does—then we should ask not only whether compelling unwilling fathers to provide that support is better than leaving those children unsupported; we should ask whether unwilling fathers are the best solution altogether. And framed that way, I find it impossible to claim that it is. Depending on unwilling fathers is, in fact, a sloppy and ineffective solution for ensuring children's welfare. Setting aside the questions of enforcement and father's willingness, imagining that all unwilling fathers nonetheless provide what support they can, the vagaries of fathers' fortunes will too often leave children wanting.
I was wrong to ignore the problem of children's material needs in my proposal, but to say “let fathers take care of it” and leave it at that is dismissive of the same fundamental problem. We need a better solution that provides for all children, and it's hard for me to imagine such a solution which doesn't involve a categorically greater level of government investment than we have now. That is a necessary precondition for the kind of policy I proposed above.
Supporting reproductive freedom for men isn't the most important reason to make a government commitment to ensuring that children's needs are provided for, but it is a nice side benefit.