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Men And Abortion

Subbing for Andrew Sullivan over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf poses an important and rarely raised question about abortion. The occasion for his remarks is a deeply disturbing article published by AlterNet last week in which the author describes attending an "abortion party," thrown in order to raise money to pay for Maggie, "a 22-year-old college senior with no intention of bringing a child into the world yet," to terminate her pregnancy. As Conor notes, the essay has come in for harsh criticism from many on the right and some on the left, mostly focused on the offensiveness of portraying an abortion as an occasion for public celebration.

But Conor is interested in focusing on a neglected aspect of the story: the fact that Maggie's boyfriend was largely excluded from the festivities. The proper role for a man in such a situation, at least according to many feminists and progressives, is to support his girlfriend's decision unconditionally while also refraining from attempting to influence it in any way. And this, according to Conor, may be psychologically unrealistic. Support presupposes, after all, that the man senses his "mutual responsibility for the circumstance and investment in the process" of deciding what to do. But this sense of responsibility and investment will tend to increase his desire to have a say in the decision. Likewise, the more freedom he gives his girlfriend to make the decision on her own, without his input, the less he's likely to care about or support her at all. Conor's point thus seems to be that feminists and progressives want, impossibly, to have it all: men who act like they're emotionally engaged while in fact being emotionally disengaged, or vice versa.

I think that's a valid point. And yet, I have to say that this whole way of framing the issues involved in abortion, which Conor accepts uncritically from the feminists and progressives he wants to provoke, is intellectually muddled. 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.

The kind of feminists and progressives who would throw an "abortion party" and insist that the father of a fetus facing possible termination should have no say in its fate are thinking and behaving monstrously, I'm afraid, by applying political and legal considerations to a sphere of life (the private sphere) where morality should set the tone. They believe, perversely, that the best (and perhaps only) way to ensure that abortion remains legal and out of the political sphere is to treat abortion--and demand that men treat abortion--as a matter of moral indifference.

But once again, 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. In the end, she should be permitted to abort the child if he fails to convince her, even if he continues to object. (Spousal consent laws move the decision back into the public--legal and political--sphere and thus deserve to be rejected by anyone who defends reproductive rights.) But there will almost certainly be personal consequences from the dispute. The man might break up with his girlfriend over the disagreement, just as she may break up with him. Or maybe they'll move past it as a couple. Whatever the outcome, they will be acting like residents of the human world--a world shot through with moral meaning--and not automatons deadened to moral experience by ideological commitments.

So yes, as Conor implies, feminists and progressives who expect men to be both unconditionally supportive of and indifferent to the reproductive decisions of their girlfriends and spouses have unrealistic expectations. But the deeper problem is that these feminists and progressives have allowed their ideological convictions to distort their vision of the world.

Michelle Cottle responds.