Since Roe v Wade, the popular narrative has focused on ‘a woman’s right to choose’. Since pregnancy occurs in a woman’s body, the argument goes, she has complete dominion over it and whatever happens within it. Although pregnancy is the result of an equal male and female genetic contribution, the ‘vessel’ in which conception and fetal development occur – a woman’s body – has an overriding, preeminent value; and her will to do with it as she wishes takes precedence over any other legal, moral, or ethical consideration.
Many critics have long felt that Roe was wrongly determined. Relying on the Privacy Clause of the Constitution was a torturous and deformed interpretation of the intent of the Framers, they said. There is nothing in the document which could possibly be construed as favoring abortion. The debate continues, and depending on the election (2016), Roe could ever be sustained again or finally overturned.
A more important debate continues in theological and philosophical circles. If life begins at conception say conservative observers, then abortion is tantamount to murder. If it does not, then when does it? The ‘morality’ of abortion is necessarily based on one’s convictions about the origin of life and whether it begins at one month, three months, or later.
Abortion was considered anathema to the theologians of the early Church. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) was among the most outspoken:
Our whole life can go on in observation of the laws of nature, if we gain dominion over our desires from the beginning and if we do not kill, by various means of a perverse art, the human offspring, born according to the designs of divine providence; for these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.
Abortion is killing human life that is under God’s care, design and providence.
Tertullian, another early Christian theologian wrote:
In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in the seed.The Old Testament texts of Genesis, Jeremiah, Judges, and Isaiah among others refer to the integrity and viability of the fetus in the womb; and both Old and New Testaments equate abortion with murder.
For some today abortion may be morally and ethically acceptable early in the pregnancy, but not after the fetus becomes viable. For others who base their convictions on more abstract philosophical arguments, a being is not a being until it is born; and Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” must be turned around to read “If I don’t think, I am not”.
However, this third debate – the right of fathers to have equal say in the prospective termination of pregnancies – has been largely ignored. The ‘woman’s right to choose’ narrative has become so part of the liberal feminist canon, that along with questions about the origin of life and the supposed primacy of a woman’s body, the legitimacy of male reproductive rights has been almost completely ignored.
Why is this? Some proponents of abortion rights contend that since regardless of a man’s perceived rights to paternity, they are irrelevant because a woman can, at her own volition and enterprise, terminate a pregnancy of her own accord.
This of course begs the question and avoids all legal, moral, and theological considerations. Abortion rights advocates simply shrug their shoulders. Since a woman is free to do whatever she please with her body, they say, male rights are moot, irrelevant, and insignificant.
Yet had the political and social environment in 1973 when Roe v Wade was decided been any less socially revolutionary (the apogee of feminism and civil rights), the Court may have taken a completely different approach. Rather than specifically look for a justification for a woman’s unilateral action to terminate a pregnancy, they might have taken a broader, more encompassing approach including both male and female rights and responsibilities.
Had women’s suffrage and legal rights not been co-opted by radical social and political factions who saw authoritarianism – whether patriarchy, the Church, corporations, or the Washington Establishment – as the enemy of individualism and individual rights; and had they not crafted a universal advocacy movement that included all perceived ‘injustices’ in one inertial juggernaut, there might have been a more equitable decision made by the Court regarding abortion.
Had the climate of political opinion been less ironically obedient to the supreme authority of the Court and more open to deciding contentious issues in the public electoral domain, issues of male rights as well as those of conception and physical primacy, might have been more fairly considered.
If abortion were to have been allowed to be debated and decided in public not in chambers,
compromises might have been reached which favored both men and women. Consent of both husbands and wives (i.e. an assumption of acknowledged paternity) might have been required before termination. In cases where either the father is not known or disavowed, such as restriction would not and could not be applied. Nevertheless, the principle of paternal rights would at least have been decided; and the express leading to complete disavowal of any male role in abortion decision-making at least slowed.
The ultimate power that a woman holds over a man is her knowledge of paternity. Strindberg’s The Father is perhaps the most powerful expression of this inherent female authority of any work of drama or fiction. The Captain, Laura’s husband in the play is totally emasculated, emotionally and legally neutered by her because of her canny understanding of male weakness, doubt, and insecurity. The medieval rules governing fidelity and chastity still in place in many parts of the Middle East are testaments to this insecurity and fear of women’s ultimate sexual authority.
All of which makes the establishment and enforcement of men’s rights in a liberal democracy difficult indeed. Women can now rule as they wish; and it has become more and more difficult for men to redress the sexual imbalance.
Yet this rise to social and political power and the independence it has afforded women does not exonerate them from moral responsibility. There is no legitimate reason why the husband of an intact marriage should not have at least an equal say in the birth of a child.
The debate about men’s reproductive rights has been clotured for three principle reasons. First, given women’s liberation and independence and the persistence of aggressive feminism, it would be difficult to enforce male rights even if they were accorded. Second, any mention of the equality of male reproductive rights in an atmosphere where women’s rights are paramount and have been for 40 years, has become politically incorrect. Third, the continuing medieval attitude towards women in many parts of the Middle East makes men’s rights and easy target. Men have already been labeled as inherently if not innately misogynist, and the caricature of a Saudi sheik locking up his women in a padlocked crypt is easy to apply to all men.
Yet the issue of male reproductive rights can never be dismissed. Arguments which focus on the indissolubility of women’s absolute rights based on their secular and practical inevitability beg the question if not avoid it entirely.
The Biblical injunctions against abortion are based on the nature of divinity and the role and responsibility of mankind in responding to it. The principles evoked in both Old and New Testaments are not socially or historically conditional despite post-modernist exegesis. They have to do with Creation, the nature of God, and the character of Man – fundamental theological conclusions not adaptable suggestions.
Within this context, the role, responsibility, and rights of husbands and all men are inextricably linked to those of women and all men. They cannot be ignored, nor should they.