by Conor Friedersdorf
Last week Alternet published a controversial essay wherein the narrator attended a party thrown to raise money for a friend's abortion. Numerous conservative bloggers wrote obligatory posts. The piece took heat from the left too. Tracy Clark-Flory posted a worthwhile example. "I hadn't heard of an abortion party until today. That's despite growing up in the liberal sanctuary of the San Francisco Bay Area and attending a passionately feminist women's college," she wrote. "I've seen women unabashedly announce "I had an abortion" to friends and strangers alike, out loud and on T-shirts and bumper stickers, but an abortion party is an entirely new concept to me."
In a followup comment, Mary Elizabeth Williams astutely writes that "the story reads like it was calculated to provoke the most apoplectic reactions of the right. The wimmins are celebrating baby killing, and men aren't welcome!" It's that last bit about men not being welcome that I'd like to focus on. The piece's numerous flaws notwithstanding, it affords an opportunity to discuss an issue that all the critical responses I've seen have mostly ignored.
Here is the relevant passage:
I saw Maggie’s boyfriend, sitting near the kitchen, wearing rainbow suspenders and looking uncomfortably alone. As it turns out, he had been the object of a lot of vitriol from Maggie’s friends -- women who thought that he should not have had anything to do with the abortion. Both he and Maggie had been saddened about this reaction because they had made the decision together. When we talked, his sentences spilled out in quick little jumbles, like scattered puzzle pieces. His eyes stayed focused on a point behind me. He looked as if he’d like to be somewhere else.
Maggie, too, looked less than excited. A few days beforehand, one of her friends had asked her to have the abortion in Ohio. When Maggie insisted on bringing her boyfriend along, the friend told her not to bother coming. Maggie was being shown a great deal of respect, certainly. But she told me she couldn’t help but feel as though her pregnancy had been "hijacked" by women who felt like her inclusion of a man in the decision was weak or wrong. This was a surprise to me, but I didn’t exactly know how to weigh in.
Abortion is, after all, a very tricky topic -- a minefield of opinions where the slightest misstep can elicit unexpected reactions from friends, family, co-workers and strangers. Though I would classify myself an ardent pro-choicer, I also recognize that I am a man, and therefore somewhat of a problematic player in the debate. It’s never been made clear to me what sort of involvement I’m entitled to on the issue, and I don’t feel particularly confident making judgment calls about women -- whatever their political leanings.
Let's call this the Tupac Shakur approach to the abortion question:
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it's time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don't we'll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can't make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you're fed up ladies, but keep your head up
Without taking any position on abortion itself, I want to interrogate the appropriate role of males, and suggest that progressives especially face some thorny questions. As I understand it, the most common position on the left is that how a woman deals with an unwanted pregnancy is a choice to be made by her alone. At the same time, the progressives I know subscribe to a partnership ideal in relationships, wherein major life decisions between couples are made via a process of mutually supportive dialogue, stripped of archaic gender norms whenever possible. It is easy enough to imagine how this plays out in a film that reflects the cultural sensibilities of secular liberals. The woman gets pregnant: "I'm late," she tells her boyfriend. The man, if he wants to keep the sympathy of the audience, says, "What are we going to do?" The "we" signals his mutual responsibility for the circumstance and investment in the process -- and the question mark signifies that he'll pretty much support whatever she decides.
And perhaps that is how things ought to go! But holding it up as an ideal in a flawed world has complicated consequences. A culture that tells men they shouldn't have any part in decisions about abortion, as portrayed at the "abortion party," inevitably discourages them from responding to a pregnant girlfriend by asking, "What should we do?" And the notion that at most men should signal mutual investment in the process, and graciously support whatever the woman decides, may sound wonderful to a lot of people, but is it really realistic? A societal norm that elevates the woman's choice above all else can certainly safeguard widespread access to abortions. But I suspect that the same norm inevitably leads some men to ask -- wrongly in my view, but understandably -- if you think that abortion is ethically unproblematic, and whether to have one or not is your choice, why should I have to pay child support for 18 years if you decide against having one?"
I've neither revealed my own views on abortion here, nor made an overall judgment about the social norms we ought to be inculcating. 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. Given that progressives and feminists are especially invested in pushing back against the notion and reality that rearing children is the province of women, I'd be curious to hear whether they agree with my diagnosis, and how they think these questions ought to be navigated. Is there an inherent tension between the social norms that advance your agenda on reproductive rights, and the ones that better bring about the world you'd like to see more generally?