The Abortion Debate, Cont'd

by Conor Friedersdorf

A few days ago I wrote a carefully worded post on the abortion debate. Though I find my argument difficult to sum up in a single sentence, it's basically that prevailing social norms in progressive circles send men a mixed signal: should their girlfriend become pregnant, the decision about whether or not to carry the pregnancy to term is hers alone; but should she choose to have the child, he is expected to be as fully invested in its gestation, birth and upbringing as she is.

Personally, I haven't any objection to a society where males are held responsible for their progeny. There is no circumstance in which I'd abandon a women with whom I had sex, or my own offspring. Nevertheless, I think that progressive social norms on this matter work at cross purposes with one another: if men think that whether or not to carry a fetus to term is the sole province of women, they are less likely to be equally invested in raising a child they fathered. "Her body, her choice," these men say to themselves. "The fact that she bore the child must mean that she wanted it -- if that's her decision, why should I bear the cost for it?" Again, I am repulsed by any man who takes that attitude toward a child he fathered. It is nevertheless my estimation that a "my body, my choice" approach to abortion marginally increases the prevalence of that attitude.

Damon Linker wrote a thoughtful rebuttal to my post:

Feminists and progressives want abortion to be legal, taken out of the political sphere. Fine. But these goal do not require that abortion be rendered morally unproblematic. And it's a good thing, too, because the decision about whether to terminate a pregnancy is and always will be, among the other things it is, a moral decision, whether or not the decision is legal.

I agree. In my original post, I tried my best to focus on a narrow argument, obscuring my views on abortion generally. Perhaps by doing so I wrote a post that seemed to implicitly agree that abortion is an amoral act. I actually don't think that, and I'm grateful to Mr. Linker for correctly clarifying that "abortion is not, and will never be, a matter of moral indifference. A man can fiercely defend a woman's (public) right to choose an abortion without state interference while also passionately trying to persuade his girlfriend (in private) to carry their (not her) baby to term."

I am less sanguine about the response to my post written by Anna N. at Jezebel. It isn't without substance. She is absolutely right, for example, when she says that "the decision of whether to continue a pregnancy affects the father too, and yes, in an ideal relationship, both partners would discuss the decision (ideally, before it ever becomes a decision i.e. "what would happen if I got unintentionally pregnant?")." I concur that this approach is ideal.

Soon enough, however, I'm confronted with this:

Friedersdorf's threat that men might withdraw their support in other areas if we deny them a role in abortion reads a little like Lindsey Graham's complaint that Sonia Sotomayor gets to say things he can't say. Men got to make all the decisions, about relationships and everything else, for a very long time. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that when they are locked out of just one a choice that involves a woman's autonomy over her own body, no less they get mad.

What nonsense. In writing about pregnancy, it shouldn't be necessary to note that any man who impregnates a woman should assume an equal burden in caring for the child. I've taken care to note that anyway. Nevertheless, here is Anna N. stating that my post amounts to a threat to women -- and implying that I am mad about the status quo. In fact, I've neither the desire to threaten women nor the emotional investment on this topic to inculcate anger. My judgment is an analytical one. I genuinely believe, without malice or endorsement, that certain specific pro-choice social norms undermine the degree to which the average man is invested in offspring he produces out of wedlock. Indeed, I wish that weren't so, as I very much want every child to be loved and raised by its father. In classic fashion for the subset of feminists whose arguments become doctrinaire, Anna N. imagines that making an observation about an unfortunate trend is tantamount to endorsing -- nay, threatening -- its propagation.

Elsewhere in her post, Anne N. quotes me as follows: "The narrow assertion I want to make is that the social norms we are inculcating are working to safeguard reproductive choices for women, and to undermine men's investment in pregnancies and child-rearing."

Her response:

Translation: See ladies? If you insist on making your own decisions about abortion, that's fine, but don't expect a man to be around later on when you need help with pregnancy or child-rearing. Because men aren't going to be willing to have a "mutually supportive dialogue" with you unless they get a say in every single decision you make, including the one that has to do with your autonomy over your own body. It's all or nothing, girls! Oh and also, this isn't totally my opinion, it's just something other people might think, and it's up to you to decide, although I did just write an op-ed about it.

In other words, the post as I wrote it wasn't amenable to the kind of outraged, offense-seeking rebuttal that Jezebel traffics in at its worst, so the blogger felt a need to offer a "translation" of my post to rage against -- never mind that the "translation" asserts spurious arguments that I utterly reject, and that are nowhere implied by my original post. I defy anyone, for example, to cite anyplace in my writing wherein I argue that men take an "all or nothing" approach to supporting women they impregnate. It is rather easy to argue against a caricature of one's interlocutor, but there isn't much point beyond posing as an aggrieved opponent of misogyny for the majority of readers who never follow the link to my piece.

She concludes as follows:

I don't believe that all anti-abortion advocates are acting in bad faith, or that they all want to control women. I do believe that many of them have genuine religious objections to abortion, and that these objections don't necessarily make them misogynists. But I also believe that on both sides of the debate are men who don't really get what it's like when something is not their decision to make. It's time for them to learn.

I am not particularly religious, I am certainly not a misogynist, and I haven't taken any position on the question of whether or not abortion is a decision that is ultimately the sole province of women. I understand that it is easier to view every debate that touches on abortion as a struggle that pits religious conservatives who undervalue the autonomy of women against enlightened progressives who know better. Doing so in this case, however, entirely misses the point of my argument, the impulses that motivated it, and the opportunity to advance the discussion.

And though I am perfectly equipped to defend my posts, and critique those who misrepresent them, I'd hasten to add that this kind of response to good faith efforts to discuss controversial topics is what discourages many male writers from entering the fray at all. It is oft lamented on feminist blogs that certain subjects pertaining to women are ghettoized in venues like Slate's Double X, rather than being discussed in mainstream publications geared at both sexes. Ann Friedman penned a sharp piece on that topic in The American Prospect. I've personally been told by two male bloggers that they shy away from any subject pertaining to gender because they fear the fallout should their views be mischaracterized and villainized. We'd all be better off if bloggers like Anne N. stopped writing posts that make such fears rational responses to reality.

UPDATE: Michelle Cottle makes some good points in this thoughtful response to my original post.