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Child Support

What is a man's role in a woman's decision to have a baby?
blogtalkAlternet piece

Before we get rolling, let me clarify that, in calling the piece “highly dubious,” I’m not suggesting the party didn’t happen as broadly outlined, merely that (a) this is the kind of piece that smacks of literary embellishment--or at the very least features a situation prone to heavy personal interpretation--in service of a point; and (b) even assuming events unfolded precisely as recounted, the experience is so outside the mainstream that it tells us virtually nothing about sexual relations, much less abortion politics, more broadly. But moving right along…

Over on The Dish, Conor Friedersdorf posits that the lib-fem ideal in such situations (as demonstrated by the shabby treatment of the boyfriend) is an inherently contradictory, unrealistic position tantamount to having one’s cake and eating it too: In essence, he says, women expect their man to embrace his responsibility for having contributed to the pregnancy (and so feel deeply invested in supporting her decision making) but also understand that he does not have any right to influence said decision (which means he can’t really be all that invested in the outcome). Friedersdorf writes:

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?" … 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?

Hmmm. Where to begin? For starters, I think Damon Linker’s response separating the political/legal question of women’s primacy in making these decisions from the morality of such a choice is a valuable one. Spousal consent laws are ghastly; a man privately talking with--and even lobbying--his lover about an unintended pregnancy is entirely reasonable. The more serious the couple, the more reasonable the lobbying. Painful for all involved? Definitely. But one of the countless reasons to be scrupulous about not accidentally getting knocked up is to avoid just this sort of unpleasantness.

Which brings us back to the original essay and Friedersdorf’s lamenting of “a culture” that considers it proper for a supportive boyfriend to be brutally elbowed to the sidelines and repeatedly dumped on by the girlfriend’s gal pals. Now, I’m sure there are women who would regard such a stand-up fellow as an unwelcome interloper in any decisions made. (And, not to stereotype, but the odds are high that these would be the same kind of women who’d throw a drunken dance party to raise money for an abortion.) But this doesn’t strike me as the cultural norm by any stretch. As even Friedersdorf notes, the lib-fem dream scenario involves the man initiating the “What are we going to do?” talk. And the caricature of Truly Sensitive Male features him vowing to hold his lover’s hand through the next step, be it a trip to the abortion clinic or the obstetrician. Some women may spit in the face of such offers. But, by and large, the progressive ideal isn’t for the man to wash his hands of the entire matter.

That said, yes, you would be hard-pressed to find a remotely progressive woman who believes that her boyfriend (much less a casual lay) should have an equal vote in whether she carries a pregnancy to term.

What can I say? The reason that whole men-don’t-have-uteruses road is so often traveled is because it’s true. Pregnancy consumes a woman’s life, body, and (thanks to the wonders of hormones) psyche in a way that men can appreciate and sympathize with but cannot understand or empathize with. (It’s at this point that some well-intentioned guy often writes in to insist how totally he bonded with his wife and his unborn baby over the course of her mind-blowing, perspective-altering pregnancy--which I find adorable, but also adorably deluded.) I’m sure, as Friedersdorf suggests, some men will demand to know why the long-term burden of child-support payments doesn’t give them an equal say in the woman’s decision. (I will spare you my views on the faux equivalence of that comparison). And one of Linker's commenters may be on to something in suggesting that there are cases in which the child-support issue should be handled differently (though I don’t think his sperm-donor comparison works). But when we’re talking child bearing, the overwhelming majority of both risks and consequences are borne by women, so of course we expect to have the final word.

Insisting upon his neutrality, Friedersdorf says he simply wants to know if this lib-fem attitude isn’t counterproductively driving men to disengage from parenthood:

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?

I guess I find this line of inquiry less than compelling in part because it seems to credit a very narrow category of pregnancies (unintended pregnancies of progressive women who expect their men to silently support whatever child-bearing decision the gals unilaterally make) with having a meaningful influence on really broad phenomena, such as men’s attitude toward parenting. Do we really think that the fatherhood crisis in this country stems from men being bullied by their feminist girlfriends? That is at the heart of all those low-income unwed mothers languishing in projects and trailer parks?

Similarly, my suspicion is that vanishingly few of the married couples now squabbling over whose turn it is to drive Sally to soccer came to parenthood because Mom overruled Dad’s plea to abort Sally. Some did. But far more reached the decision to have a child more or less mutually. And while it’s an interesting exercise to speculate about whether a broad social norm that gives women the ultimate say in the question of to-abort-or-not-to-abort is undermining the will to parent of men who never face the issue, I’m just not buying it.

That said, you’ve got to give Friedersdorf props for asking the hard questions.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.