A Man's Right to Choose
When a pregnancy is unintended, should men have the right to refuse unwilling fatherhood?
Somethings, the best solution isn’t a fair solution.
Abortion rights and parental leave, two crucial components of reproductive rights, are in the news lately, as the Supreme Court decides whether or not to overturn Roe v. Wade, and as moderate Democrats decide to tank a much-needed paid parental leave policy. In both stories, we are mostly talking about women — while some men do get pregnant and their right to abortion is also under threat, and while many man take a few days(!) off when they have a child, policies pertaining to reproductive freedoms and parenting (or forgoing or delaying parenthood) still disproportionately impact women, by a pretty significant margin: The vast majority of people who get pregnant identify as women, and mothers do much more childcare work than fathers.
Rightly, we’ve begun to talk much more about the importance of parental leave for men. We’ve talked a bit more about the fact that trans men and nonbinary people get pregnant, have children, and have abortions. And we’ve talked a tiny bit — although not nearly enough — about how the many millions of women who have had safe, private abortions have enabled many millions of men to have the lives that they do — that so many men’s successes, joys, loves, and families have come because, somewhere along the line, a partner ended a pregnancy that didn’t come at the right time or didn’t come within the right relationship.
That is one big, untold story of abortion rights: That as much as abortion rights have meant more freedom for women, they’ve also meant more freedom for men. Some men understand this. Most don’t — maybe their partners never told them about the abortion in the first place, or maybe it only registered as a blip in their lives and not a transformative moment. Most men, I would guess, don’t think about abortion as a deeply personal issue for them, something that has immeasurably bettered their lives. It’s also difficult to account for invisible gains, the things in life that feel like achievements or random bits of luck that in truth sprung from one path not taken so a more promising one could be walked — so many men’s career successes, their travel, their financial stability, their great loves that wouldn’t have been found, their children who wouldn’t have existed had so many female partners not made a choice to end a pregnancy, and in doing so, bettered both people’s lives.
We don’t know a lot about the outcome for men whose partners had abortions versus those whose partners wanted abortions but couldn’t get them. We do, however, know quite a bit about women who sought abortions and couldn’t get them versus women who could: Compared to women who were able to end their pregnancies, women who were turned away from abortion services and had babies they did not want to have wound up more likely to stay stuck in poverty, more likely to be trapped in abusive relationships, more likely to have long-term health issues, less likely to feel hopeful about the future, and more likely to have serious physical complications from their pregnancies, including death. The children of women who are denied abortions — the children a woman already had, and the child she was forced to have — also end up worse off than the preexisting children of women who were able to end the pregnancies.
It’s not a huge stretch to guess that men whose partners were able to obtain wanted abortions wind up better off, too, while men whose partners were forced to continue pregnancies and give birth against their will do worse. For women and men alike, the choice to end a mistimed or unwanted pregnancy is a moment when one’s life could have gone badly off-course, and instead, was able to stay on track — and to get better. It’s often the beginning of something as much as an end.
And yet when we do talk about the impact of abortion rights on men, it’s often framed as a loss: Either men didn’t get to choose fatherhood because their partner had an abortion, or men were forced into fatherhood because their partner didn’t.
Feminists tend to be pretty unsympathetic to these men. And I am certainly broadly unsympathetic to the men who believe they should have the right to force any woman into continuing a pregnancy or having an abortion. Men who complain that their girlfriends had abortions without their consent or permission? They are certainly allowed their own hurt feelings or sadness at a wish unfulfilled, just as we are all allowed to grieve when another person doesn’t do what we would like them to do — doesn’t love us back, doesn’t want to date or marry us, doesn’t want the same kind of life, doesn’t wish for the same relationship or family. But “I want to be a dad so the law should force my partner to continue a pregnancy against her will” is not a reasonable basis for policy, and “it’s unfair my partner had the right to end a pregnancy against my will” is the statement of a morally small, deeply misogynistic man.
I do feel a touch more sympathy for the other group, though: those who become unwilling fathers.