Our Current Abortion Law as a Product of Men
by Charles C. Camosy
“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
~ Florynce Kennedy, lawyer and feminist civil rights activist
“[Pro-choice feminists] should look rather to their own elitist acceptance of male models of sex and to the sad picture they present of women’s lives. Pitting women against their own offspring is not only morally offensive, it is psychologically and politically destructive.”
~ Sidney Callahan, Hastings Center Distinguished Scholar
Let’s begin by focusing on bioethicist and pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan’s argument that abortion rights serve the interests of men and actually hurt the interests of women. This can be a difficult idea to accept, even if one finds her other points persuasive, because our American discussion of abortion presumes just the opposite. How could what we are constantly told is the most sacred of women’s rights actually be at the service of men? It becomes easier to accept when we think about some of the major players who were pushing new abortion policies in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s worth noting that the “pro-choice” activism of Hugh Hefner and his Playboy Foundation, including his direct sponsorship of the lower court cases, led to Roe v. Wade. (Interestingly, Hefner claims that he “was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism.”) It is also rarely pointed out that Roe v. Wade was decided when the Supreme Court had all male justices. Were these men sensitive to women’s issues and realities? Did they decide the law based on justice concerns for women?
Linda Greenhouse, a strongly “pro-choice” journalist who covered the Supreme Court for the The New York Times, claims that “the seven middle-aged to elderly men in the majority certainly didn’t think they were making a statement about women’s rights”; rather, authentically female concerns were “nearly absent from the opinion.” A current Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, agrees: speaking at the University of Chicago, she said that Roe was a disappointment because it focused on privacy rather than on advancing women’s rights. Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the majority in the Roe decision, was a former lawyer for the Mayo Clinic. Greenhouse noted the unsurprising fact that his decision was particularly focused on the concerns of male physicians.
What is essential for women’s equality, it turns out, is that they are able to end their pregnancies when those pregnancies constitute a burden on their economic and social interests.
Aside from this fairly obvious (though overlooked) example, the influence of male perspectives and ideas on Roe and its successors is more subtle in that it connects with issues that aren’t directly about abortion. These men of the Supreme Court based their opinion on many concerns that “nested” with abortion: sexual freedom; marriage; the meaning and place for parenting; and the role of women in society. As legal scholar Helen Alvare notes, the Court pontificated on these very complex and delicate matters in an “urgent and authoritative” manner, especially about the harms they believed women suffer without access to abortion. Callahan shows in some detail how the model they used for thinking about how women suffer was not feminist. It did not, for instance, offer a feminist critique of an individualist, disconnected, hierarchical, autonomy-focused view of the person. Indeed, far from critiquing it, that was precisely the view of the human that the justices used. Women were imagined to be disconnected and isolated individuals—in a more privileged position on the hierarchy of value than their prenatal children—who must be given the private space to make individual, autonomous decisions about their reproductive lives.
Toward this end, the Roe court sought a solution that made women “free” to act like men: to imagine themselves as able to live sexual, reproductive, economic, professional, and parental lives and concerns as men did. On this model, pregnancy and childbirth are a burden and cause of distress relative to one’s economic gain, professional advancement, and sexual autonomy. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court reaffirmed Roe’s general framework and this understanding of the person. They looked back at the American social landscape since Roe was decided in 1973 and offered the following assessment:
For two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.
What did the Supreme Court claim, then, was essential for women to participate equally in society? Equal pay for equal work regardless of whether a woman chooses to have children? Nope. Mandatory pregnancy leave and child care for female students and workers? Nah. Strict anti-discrimination laws in hiring practices? Sorry. What is essential for women’s equality, it turns out, is that they are able to end their pregnancies when those pregnancies constitute a burden on their economic and social interests.
But being pregnant and having a child is often so burdensome for women precisely because our social structures have been designed by and for human beings who cannot get pregnant. Notice how, in this context, the recourse to abortion ends up serving the interests of men. The patriarchal social structures that serve their interests remain unchanged. If we were interested in offering women genuine reproductive freedom, we would change our social structures in ways that honor their differences from men. Men offering women the so-called “freedom” to pretend that their social, economic, and reproductive lives can flourish in social structures designed for people who can’t have babies is preposterous and insulting.
Being pregnant and having a child is often so burdensome for women precisely because our social structures have been designed by and for human beings who cannot get pregnant.
Unsurprisingly, recent history indicates that “pro-choice” men in power will sacrifice women’s genuine social equality in favor of attempts to protect abortion rights. In 2013, New York’s outspokenly “pro-choice” governor, Andrew Cuomo, introduced what he intended to be women-friendly legislation. Indeed, it was a “ten-point plan” that he called the Women’s Equality Act. The ten points included lots of absolutely wonderful and (at least in New York) largely uncontroversial provisions: pay equity, banning pregnancy discrimination, and so on. However, Cuomo insisted on including expansion of late-term abortion in the bill. “Pro-lifers”—both Republican and Democrat—defeated the abortion expansion and offered to pass the other nine provisions instead. Cuomo refused, and thus he let the whole bill fail. Rather than pass nine key women-friendly laws, Cuomo decided to stick to his abortion guns and let the whole bill go down in flames. Tellingly, his decision occurred in the same legislative session in which he pushed a budget that cut funding for a successful program supporting low-income and teenage mothers. Cuomo let everyone know that his true loyalty was to abortion rights and not women’s equality.
Many times, however, the coercive influence of men is less about subtle and abstract matters like social structures and understandings of humans. Sometimes the coercion is more direct: multiple studies, for instance, have found a strong correlation between abortion and “intimate partner violence,” especially when a woman has had multiple abortions. Of a disturbingly large number of examples that could make the point, consider the story of Tanner Hopkins, who, in response to his girlfriend’s refusal to submit to his pressure to have an abortion, pulled up next to her in his vehicle at an intersection and fired two shots into her without saying a word. And blatant male coercion of abortion goes well beyond physical violence. Consider the recent story about NBA player J. J. Redick and the “abortion contract” he signed with his former girlfriend. According to The Huffington Post, the leaked contract revealed that his ex was pregnant, and he stipulated that she end the pregnancy and provide proof of the abortion. The two would then be legally mandated to maintain a social relationship for another year. If Redick bowed out of the relationship before that time, the contract indicated that he would pay her $25,000.
The people with whom I’ve shared this story have found it shocking and disgusting. We could not find a better example of Sidney Callahan’s point that abortion rights legitimate the irresponsibility of men and pressure/coerce the choices of women. But should we find it shocking? Isn’t this simply making public and explicit what is already the informal understanding in our culture? Men like Reddick don’t want to be burdened—economically or socially—with the prospect of raising and/or otherwise supporting a child. The social expectation that a privileged male’s sexual partner will get an abortion is built into his lifestyle. It may shock us that someone would make this unstated social expectation so explicit in a legal document, but the idea that men expect women to get abortions as a necessary component of their sexual lifestyle is hardly new. After all, more than half of women who abort their pregnancies cite “being a single mother” or “having relationship problems” as a reason.
The idea that men expect women to get abortions as a necessary component of their sexual lifestyle is hardly new
Women experience pressure to abort not only from their sexual partners but also from their family members. The coercive role that parents (and particularly fathers) play in the decisions of pregnant women and girls is worth far more attention than it currently receives. In 2013, for instance, a pregnant teenage girl brought suit in Texas against her father for pressuring her into getting an abortion. A copy of the lawsuit claimed that he “was going to take her to have an abortion and that the decision was his, end of story.” During the very same year, another man sued his girlfriend’s family for pressuring her to have an abortion. In the complaint he claimed that not only was she in favor of keeping the child, but that her family was of the view that her life would be “ruined” if she had a child with a “non-white man.” These stories merely highlight what we already know through experience and intuition: Abortion serves the interests of parents who want to pressure and even coerce their daughters’ reproductive choices. Especially when a young pregnant woman is financially and otherwise dependent, there is little to stand in their way.
No doubt our culture’s laws should change to better protect women from these kinds of coercive situations (one could also invoke the numerous examples of pimps and sex-trafficking ringleaders who force women into having abortions), situations that make a mockery of the idea that women have the “freedom of choice” to have an abortion. But when “pro-lifers” propose legislation to protect women from these kinds of situations, it is often opposed by powerful “pro-choice” men. Two recent examples occurred in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper opposed and defeated a 2010 bill that would have created serious penalties for anyone who coerced a woman into having an abortion, and then he proclaimed that he would refuse to allow any abortion-related bill to come to a vote. Justin Trudeau, leader of the Canadian Liberal Party in 2014 and a candidate for prime minister, has insisted that all members of his party be compelled to vote “pro-choice.” Should it surprise us that two powerful Canadian men are leading the charge to keep abortion the status quo? Like many other men, they are standing up for a set of rights that, though they are sold as women’s rights, actually serve their own political, sexual, and economic interests.
Florynce Kennedy said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” She’s right, of course, but with one essential qualification. Abortion is already a sacramental right in our culture for many “pro-choice” men precisely because it already serves their economic and social interests.
This article is excerpted from chapter 5 of Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, by Charles C. Camosy (Eerdmans, 2015). It appears here by kind permission of the publisher.