Politically this has been billed as the Year of the Woman. At the center of the storm that rained on the parade of more than one politician this year is one issue -- abortion. What the reproductive rights of women are, and who will decide the limits of these rights, are defining issues not only of this political campaign, but of this quarter-century.
But in the midst of this storm, some men are wondering if they have any reproductive rights, and if so what they are, and if not why not.
"I made up a riddle last night," writes Fred Hayward, head of the California-based group Men's Rights, Incorporated. "What would you call it if women lost not only the right to terminate the pregnancy when they wanted to abort it, but even lost the right not to terminate it when they did not want to abort it? If she were forced to have a fetus aborted that she wanted to raise? You give up? It would be called equality, because that is the present status of men."
What men like Fred Hayward are upset about isn't abortion itself -- these men are pro-choice -- it's the fact that women are currently allowed to make decisions that have a great impact on men's lives unilaterally and without their input. If a pregnant woman wants to abort and the father wants to have a child, tough luck for him. And if she wants to bear the child, but the man isn't ready to be a father, well, see you in court when it comes time for child support, buster.
Of these men who are debating their reproductive rights, only a minority believe that a woman should have the consent of the father before having an abortion. Most believe that because the woman's body is carrying the pregnancy, the decision is ultimately hers. The debate centers mostly on two issues: How this should affect male sexuality, and whether men should be forced into parenthood through paternity suits or whether instead men, too, have the right to decide when to take on the responsibilities of parenthood.
"Male heterosexual responsibility," according to Richard Newman, "should begin with the realization that once we fertilize the egg -- unless we have agreed beforehand with our partner on the consequences -- what happens thereafter is beyond our control." Newman wrote an controversial article in Changing Men, a feminist men's movement journal, in which he made the argument that men have no rights concerning unintended pregnancies, and that men therefore must make decisions about procreation before engaging in sexual activity.
Newman wrote: "If a man who believes abortion is murder finds himself involved with a woman who explicitly says she will have an abortion should she become pregnant, that man has a responsibility to himself to avoid completely the possibility of her becoming pregnant. Since he cannot question her right to an abortion, the moral dilemma if she gets pregnant is his, not hers."
What Newman glosses over is that in real life women don't make hard and fast agreements before the fact about what they will do if confronted with an unintended pregnancy, and that even if they do, they are under no legal obligation to follow through. Newman's solution, then, if taken to its natural conclusion, is either vasectomy or homosexuality or abstinence -- none of which are for everyone.
Author Harlan Ellison came to that conclusion, though, and shared it with his readers in the introduction to "Croatoan:" "I wrote this story after an affair with a woman who led me to believe she was on The Pill, who became pregnant, and who subsequently had an abortion... The point, which obsessed me, was that if people whose lives were touched by mine failed to take responsibility for their own lives, then I had to do it for them... Two weeks after writing 'Croatoan' I had my vasectomy."
The other half of the problem Ellison experienced is when the woman decides to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term despite the father's wishes (or the father's ignorance of the situation). One man wrote to advice columnist Ann Landers to tell the story of his 21-year-old sister who "despises men, but she wants a family." She got pregnant and said, when asked if she knew who the father was, "I picked him out. It was no love affair. He thought I was on the pill."
Ann's response, without a word deleted: "It was, indeed, selfish of your sister to do this, but don't make a bad situation worse by interfering. Lisa should get some advice from someone whose head is on straighter than hers. I hope she will talk to her doctor, a clergyman, a social worker or a counselor. She needs to know that the baby's father is legally responsible for child support, even though she deceived him and doesn't want his financial help. Show her this column and good luck to all of you."
She's right, of course, the baby's father is legally responsible, even though the mother deceived him, and even if she doesn't want his support -- even if he doesn't know he's a father yet. The courts will be happy to take a chunk out of his paycheck every month, and add a little retroactive support in for those few months he didn't realize he was the family breadwinner. And if he loses his job or decides he'd prefer to work a lower paying job, or if he decides he would like to be able to afford to raise a family of his own -- well, that's just too bad. He'll pay up in full, or he'll go to jail.
A woman has the absolute right to decide when to become a parent. A man is at the mercy of technology, biology, and the woman's decision. A condom that breaks (or a woman who falsely claims to be on The Pill) can be translated into two decades of hard labor, working extra hours to support a child the man may not even be able to see, or may not even want to know.
"She was the first person I had sex with," says Hugh Ludlow (In these examples, the names of the men involved have been changed), 20, "She on the other hand was very experienced... So I trusted her judgement on the issue of what was safe and what wasn't. She told me that the rhythm method was reliable." Now he is waiting for the paternity suit. He plans to contest paternity, but doesn't sound very hopeful.
Quincey Thomas found the government on his back: "[She] called on the AFDC to force me to support her and the child (she does not work) regardless of the fact that I was very much against having any children right now."
Bernie Taylor, another man forced into fatherhood, says, "This is like the abortion issue for women. I can't believe the power someone else can have over my life based on a short affair."
Some men are seriously debating whether there ought to be a pro-choice option for men. They think a man should be able to say, when confronted with an unintended pregnancy -- "I don't want to be a father. You have the right to have an abortion, but if you choose not to, it's your choice and it's your child and you will have to pay your own way."
The National Center for Men (NCM), based in New York, thinks men should have that right -- and they're bringing a case into Federal District Court in New York City on the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade that's being billed as "Roe v. Wade for men." According to Joe Appelbaum, the NCM litigation chairman, and a self-described "paternity suit victim," the organization will "petition the federal courts to permit a man, prior to fetal viability, to go into a family court and relinquish rights and responsibilities to the unborn child. We want a legal 'right to choose,' too."
The NCM legal team can find some encouragement in the reasoning of the Supreme Court in their latest abortion decision. The justices did not touch on child support and paternity suits directly, but while striking down a husband consent measure in an anti-abortion law, they seemed to imply that reproductive rights is a two-way street:
"The Constitution protects individuals, men and women alike, from unjustified state interference, even when that interference is enacted into law for the benefit of their spouses... The Constitution protects individuals, male or female, married or unmarried, from the abuse of governmental power, even where that power is employed for the supposed benefit of a member of the individual's family."
"This is a noble statement of principles," says NCM Executive Director Mel Feit, "and a clear statement of our own philosophy... but I don't think they mean what they say." Feit says that despite the egalitarian rhetoric from the Supreme Court, "although we're making a very progressive, feminist argument, I don't know if anyone is optimistic about winning. But even if we lose, we win, because at least we have exposed the hypocrisy.
"Our argument is going to be this: You can't force men into fatherhood because you can't force women into motherhood." The freedom won for women in Roe v. Wade, Feit says, "means more than control of her body, but control of her reproductive life, and control over the decision of when to become a parent. But there are so many men who have no control over their reproductive life."
Is there a way that men can control their reproductive lives without infringing on women's reproductive rights? Can a compromise be reached which would allow both men and women to control when they will become parents? Not any time soon, from the looks of things.
Mel Feit says that the pro-choice leadership and feminist groups, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, have strongly opposed choice for men. Pro-choice for women has implicitly meant not only the freedom to decide whether or not to have an abortion, but the availability of a man to subsidize the choice to bear a child. This compromise offers only to take away this subsidy from women in the name of equality -- to demand that a woman's unilateral decision- making power be accompanied by unilateral responsibility. In language eerily reminiscent of the anti-abortion movement, some of these critics say "if he didn't want to be financially responsible for a child, he shouldn't have had sex." Or, more bluntly, "it's a child; not a choice."
"Passage of laws providing males an escape from child support payments has superficial appeal," writes Arthur B. Shostak, author of Men and Abortion: Lessons, Losses, and Love. "It would pressure females to upgrade their contraception choice. But as it would relax this same pressure on males, it is far too sexist and one-sided to warrant enactment into law."
But some pro-choice activists are less hostile to the idea. Christie Brewster, of the Reproductive Choice Association at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, says "I think men should have a choice." Other members of the group were equally sympathetic. "I totally understand what they [the NCM] mean," said one. Teresa Wright, another member, was also interested in the idea. She said she had some concerns, but was reluctant to express them. "I don't want to sound like one of them," she said, referring to pro-life activists.
Association member Barry Hutain was more skeptical. "The man's choice of parenthood is before the sex act," he said. "He has to be responsible for each act. Even if the pregnancy is unintended, it's his responsibility. It's like AIDS -- everything has its consequences."
Male sexuality, Hutain said, "is like firing bullets in the air. I can shoot a gun in the air all I want, never intending to hurt anyone, but I have to be prepared to face the consequences if one of those bullets comes down and kills someone."
Asked whether men could ever have sex without fear of being forced into fatherhood, Hutain agreed that this was a problem. Are vasectomy and abstinence the only choices for heterosexual men who aren't ready to be parents? "I guess that's true, in the extreme."
Hutain was more approving of a hypothetical law which would allow men to declare that they don't want to be fathers before a pregnancy occurs. "I wouldn't mind that. There's no third party." Third party? "I'm not going to call it a life, but once she's pregnant there's a new complication. For any of these proposals to work, though, abortion must be legal. That's very important."
After listening to Hutain's objections, Christie Brewster agreed that the NCM proposal might "make men more careless." But, she added, "I still kinda support it." She's not alone among pro-choice women. In fact, none other than Karen DeCrow, former president of the National Organization for Women, was quoted as saying that "men should not automatically have to pay for a child they don't want. It's the only logical feminist position to take."
DeCrow wrote a letter to the editor of New York Times Magazine a decade ago in which she endorsed the idea of male choice. "Justice..." she wrote, "dictates that if a woman makes a unilateral decision to bring pregnancy to term, and the biological father does not, and cannot, share in this decision, he should not be liable for 21 years of support. Or put another way, autonomous women, making independent decisions about their lives should not expect men to finance their choice."
Pro-lifers, on the other hand, are universally hostile to the compromise, mostly because it presupposes legal abortion. But some, like the heretical Feminists For Life group, have always suspected that abortion was part of a male plot to evade responsibility for their sexuality and to get "free sex" from women. This talk of equal rights for men only confirms their suspicions.
"Abortion allows men to escape responsibility for their own sexual behavior," states a Feminists For Life position paper. "A man whose child is aborted is relieved of the requirement that he support his children. It is not surprising that the Playboy Foundation is a major supporter of abortion rights, because abortion is a natural consequence of the Playboy's ideal of uncommitted, anonymous sex without consequences."
Cal Poly Students For Life members were surprised at the NCM proposal. Upon reflection, member Alexis Senter said, "it sounds like a natural progression." Richard Fairall, also a member, agreed: "The whole abortion thing is about giving up responsibilities."
But the idea of men being able to "abort" their responsibilities to an unborn child is a long way from igniting the imagination of the press, the people, or the politicians. The only tolerated position to take these days towards men who don't want to be saddled with child support is that hanging is too good for them. In fact, in the political arena this year the term "Deadbeat Dad" is easily as potent, and just as full of exaggerations and stereotypes, as the term "Welfare Mom" was a decade ago.
President-elect Bill Clinton was especially harsh toward "deadbeat dads" in a recently published interview: "Do I think we ought to have a Draconian system of national child support enforcement? I sure do. I really believe that. I do." He also believes that a woman should be able to claim a father in the delivery room, who will then be held responsible for child support until proven innocent.
President Bush, for his part, has proposed revoking business and drivers licenses from people who are behind on their child support payments. Whether a kid is more likely to get money from a father who can't work or drive has been a less important concern than retribution (oh, yes, and reelection).
But even if the issue of reproductive rights for men hasn't caught fire this election year, the fact that these questions are being raised and debated promises to expose a new facet of the debate over abortion, over reproductive rights in general, and over the question of whether biology is destiny. It is clear, for instance, that much of the rhetoric of the current pro-choice movement would seem to support this radical notion of male choice. If the idea catches on, the current pro-choice movement will have to change its philosophical tack, or at least its bumperstickers, to clarify whether they believe women deserve choice and men deserve to pick up the check, or if what's good for the goose is good for the gander.
And men, for their part, may just discover a reason to get more passionate about the abortion issue -- and may find that they potentially have a much bigger stake in making sure that abortion remains legal.