Monday, August 3, 2009

On abortion

A few weeks ago my friend Nick shared an item by Andrew Sullivan examining what the role of men is in the abortion debate. Abortion is often a thorny issue, so it wasn't too surprising to see commentary on the item get a little heated. I refrained from offering my own thoughts, then, realizing that they weren't particularly well-formed. Time and thinking have fixed that some but I'm sure this isn't the last I'll write on the subject.

The problem Mr. Sullivan wants to expand on is that right now, a father's role in the abortion decision isn't well defined. For the most part, he has no legal claim and there don't seem to be any norms emerging regarding whether he knows, is asked about it, is asked to pay for it, etc. Mr. Sullivan worries that if men are cut from the decision entirely then they'll develop an aversion to being saddled with responsibility for the outcome of the decision: the baby.

You might think that is callous. I'll even agree with you! It's also extremely easy to develop that feeling when discussing abortion in our society. I think it stems from the relationship rights and responsibilities enjoy with each other as well as the progress of a woman's rights to her body versus a man's right to his money. I'm sure I'll think of a better way of putting it, someday.

Sara, in response to Nick, shared an article from Jezebel about this topic. It more or less asserted that men have no right to infringe on a woman's autonomy over her own body. This is, as far as I can tell and as far as I'm concerned, the most salient argument in favor of abortion rights. There are, in truth, a variety of factors as to why women are justified in tenaciously safeguarding the right to their body, abortion rights inclusive; historically, they've been deprived of this autonomy.

Earlier I mentioned rights and responsibilities. I got this from my ethics classes in college, but essentially the argument goes that wherever there is a right (or privilege) of some sort, there is also a corresponding responsibility (or duty) of some sort. For example, if I say I have the right to work then someone has the responsibility to make sure I have the opportunity to do so. Or if I have the right to privacy someone has to enforce sanctions against anyone that infringes on that right. In the real world, of course, the institutions and arrangements that would guarantee a right by taking on or assigning the corresponding responsibility don't always work well. Perhaps the responsibility for securing my right to work lands on me. Perhaps the institution safeguarding my privacy has no incentive to do so. Sometimes, though, things change sufficiently where the old institutions and arrangements are no longer valid. I think legal, socially-acceptable abortion is such a case.

The ideal situation, where a married couple raises a number of children that they're able to devote material and emotional support to, likely corresponds best to the way we used to do it before civilization came around (I should and will look into that further). Regardless, we've acknowledged this doesn't always happen and have instituted laws and norms to compensate. Fathers have a financial obligation to support their children (and sometimes the mother of their children) outside of wedlock. This makes sense! The problem is that this makes sense if they're in a position of responsibility over the pregnancy , and nowadays it is becoming clearer that such isn't necessarily the case.

At some point in history, the man was the most responsible party of a pregnancy. It was (and is) highly unlikely that a woman could force a man to impregnate her and certainly is the case that males had the most options for not having children, up to and including avoiding sex altogether. This remains their biggest privilege, the reason we then assign them a corresponding responsibility to their kids.

The thing is that, now, women have a level of control over their pregnancy that we haven't dealt with before. If she's pregnant, that isn't the end of the story until the child is born; she could get an abortion. There's a lot behind such a decision, but we've decided that, really, the father doesn't have an enforceable claim to the outcome of it. And yet, it was decided that he is responsible for the child. That is to say, their earlier privelige has lost its relative value, but their responsibility remains the same. This is where the callousness kicks in and a father will claim that society has no right to force the baby onto him, especially given that he wasn't the last one to decide whether it would be born or not.

If you're angry at this point, I don't blame you. I, for one, can think of several reasons why responsibility can still be assigned to the father or why their autonomy in baby-making retains its value. Here's the rub, though: with the progress of technology and sociel norms, most of those reasons are going to vanish. It won't always be the case that the man can be assigned the overwhelming share of responsibility of a pregnancy. It will eventually be the case that women will enjoy the same autonomy over their bodies men do. After we get there, do we still feel comfortable having him bear the cost of raising a child he didn't want?