A recent news article described libertarians as embracing “reproductive autonomy for men but not for women.” The article describes libertarians as prone to embracing a series of apparently inconsistent beliefs: that men should be able to ‘veto’ their partners’ abortions; that women should not be allowed to get abortions generally; and that men should be able to access ‘paper abortion’, or be able to sign a document that relieves them of any and all future financial responsibility once their partners become pregnant. The study connects these attitudes towards larger dispositions towards ‘hostile sexism’ in the libertarian community.
The concept of men ‘deserving’ the right to a paper abortion has received a lot of popular attention and it is frequently brought up in forums like Reddit and Twitter. Usually, it is framed as something that is “only fair” if women get the right to choose an abortion. The popularity of the concept of paper abortion means it deserves feminist scrutiny. Does society need to grant this right to men if women are “allowed” elective abortion?
Background: Would men who don’t wish to parent children significantly benefit from a ‘right’ to paper abortion?
Before diving into a discussion of the strict ethics of paper abortion, it’s worth considering whether the popularity of the concept reflects a widescale injustice being done to men in places where abortion is permitted but not “paper abortion”. It is certainly true that many men struggle to pay child support and wish that they didn’t have to pay it. Would providing a “paper abortion” option realistically help such men?
Sociological data does not support this idea. “Doing the Best I Can”, Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson’s sociological work on ‘deadbeat dads’ in the inner cities, offers insight into the motivations of a sizeable group of men who go on to abandon their children and who struggle to pay child support. Interestingly, their work showed that women are far more likely than men to desire an abortion after an unplanned or semi-unplanned pregnancy.
When accidental pregnancy occurs, discussions of abortion often follow. Although some of these pregnancies are terminated, disagreement among the couple often forestalls abortion. Intriguingly, these men are more likely to oppose than advocate for ending the pregnancy in these circumstances…
…Men rarely counsel their partners to have an abortion—this usually occurs only when a woman is very young or still in school. While most fathers we spoke with believe abortion is wrong, even those who are strongly morally opposed are typically careful to say that because she is the one bearing the child and giving birth, the woman has the ultimate say.
While this sounds quite progressive, there is often another logic in play. Because she is the one who chooses to stop using birth control and then decides whether to bring the pregnancy to term, she also bears the ultimate responsibility for those choices; the buck stops with her. By stumbling into fatherhood without explicitly planning to do so, men’s sense of responsibility for bringing a child into the world in even wildly imperfect circumstances is significantly diminished. He can always say, “Well, I didn’t set out to become a father, it just happened. She wasn’t taking birth control, and when she got pregnant it was really her decision to have the baby.”Edin, Kathryn; Nelson, Timothy J.. Doing the Best I Can. University of California Press
The vast majority of men surveyed, when they find out their partner is pregnant, do not react by thinking, “I wash my hands of this; I wish I could sign a legal document to ensure I have no future financial obligations to the future child.” Instead, the men generally react with joy and excitement to the news, but men vastly underestimate the difficulty and challenges that come with co-parenting a child. Relationships break down after the baby is born and the glow wears off, and the men often feel that their relationship with the child is irrevocably spoiled; this frequently leads the men to abandon that relationship and “start fresh” with another woman/baby, and the cycle continues.
The men in these pages seldom deliberately choose whom to have a child with; instead “one thing just leads to another” and a baby is born. Yet men often greet the news that they’re going to become a dad with enthusiasm and a burst of optimism that despite past failures they can turn things around. Conception usually happens so quickly that the “real relationship” doesn’t begin until the fuse of impending parenthood has been lit. For these couples, children aren’t the expression of commitment; they are the source.
In these early days, men often work hard to “get it together” for the sake of the baby—they try to stop doing the “stupid shit” (a term for the risky behavior that has led to past troubles) and to become the man their baby’s mother thinks family life requires. But in the end, the bond—which is all about the baby—is usually too weak to bring about the transformation required.Edin, Kathryn; Nelson, Timothy J.. Doing the Best I Can (p. 17). University of California Press.
The way men react to unplanned pregnancy in real life seems very different from the way it is described in many MRA forums, where one might think many men are desperate to avoid fatherhood but keep getting “babytrapped” by devious women out for child support money. But it’s worth pointing out that the way “paper abortion” is framed does not reflect the realities of the vast majority of men’s lives, even those men who go on to abandon their children and who are quite likely to struggle and resent child support payments. After all, if men tend to desire a child during the heady days of pregnancy and infancy, and only wish to step out a few years later, “paper abortions” would be totally unhelpful in alleviating their plight.
With this in mind, a feminist sociological analysis of the “paper abortion” discourse and its outsize popularity might describe it as more of a aspirational fantasy for men who may imagine themselves as Hugh Hefner type figures whom devious women want to “babytrap”, rather than as something that men in the real world would realistically utilize to benefit their lives. There doesn’t seem to be much data that shows men on the hook for child support would benefit from such a legal device. Rather, the omnipresence of discussion of “paper abortion” in online forums likely reflects more emotive perspectives – men feel it’s just not fair that women get a choice to have a child once they become pregnant, while men’s obligations to provide child support may hinge on the woman’s decision.
Is Paper Abortion “Only Fair”? A Brief Analysis
Now that we have considered the the sociological background, we can engage with the meat of the argument for paper abortion presented. I will describe the popular argument for paper abortion in the following way:
If a pregnant woman can get out of providing for a child by getting an abortion, a man should be able to get out of paying child support by renouncing his obligations during the woman’s pregnancy.
It’s immediately obvious that the two situations, a woman getting an abortion vs a man getting a paper abortion, have a morally relevant dissimilarity. In the first situation, no child ever exists (we will assume for the sake of argument all parties agree that a zygote is not a person). In the second situation, a child does exist, and that child has a prima facie right to at least some financial or material support from both parents. (Note that this works even if one concedes the pro-life point that the zygote is a person; the abortion is still justified because the fetus has no right to the pregnant woman’s body, even if one agrees the child, once born, has a right to both the father and mother’s money, material support, etc.)
This alone suggests that superficial, popular arguments for men getting an automatic right to duck out of child support payments if women have a right to get abortions fail, as they don’t consider this obvious but important morally relevant dissimilarity. (In one case, a child exists; in the other case, the child doesn’t exist.)
However, this is unlikely to satisfy those invested in the concept, as it essentially grants that the nature of pregnancy means that women have a 3-9 month window (assuming they live in an area with abortion protections) where they and not the father can avoid having a child (and the consequences thereof). In his piece defending men’s rights to paper abortions, Steven Hales argues that this gives women an unacceptable advantage that society should try to correct.
Even if biology prevents men and women from having absolutely identical means to exercise their rights, it remains that what we should do is try to achieve equal opportunity to exercise rights as much as possible.Steven Hales, Abortion and Father’s Rights
Perhaps we will never attain complete equality (biology may prevent us), but we should try our best…
What we should do is try to equalize the powers people have with respect to the exercise of rights as much as possible. We might look at this as striving for parity among actualizable rights…
Implicit in Hales’ piece is the idea that men are unfairly burdened by being unable to refuse fatherhood in that window; to correct this unfairness, men should be able to access paper abortion. This unfairness only stands out as problematic, however, if one disregards the fact that the burden of pregnancy is already massively unfair (to women). Women have to endure the physical burden of pregnancy; if this means that women have the “privilege” of a 3-9 month period in which they and not the man involved can decide whether a future child exists, it also means that men have the (much greater) privilege of not having to endure the hardships of pregnancy at all. The seeming unfairness to men of the woman getting ‘extra time’ to choose whether to have a child is simply a minor consequence of the larger unfairness to women in the way pregnancy works.
Put another way, men have the equal right to women to terminate a fetus growing in their body; the biological facts of the world, however, mean that men simply don’t grow fetuses in their bodies. The fact men never need to exercise this right does not entitle men to a secondary right (to paper abortion) to “make up for it”.
To highlight this, consider a situation in which someone has an alcohol allergy, which makes alcohol consumption unpleasant. This person wishes to consume cocaine instead. Does society have a special obligation to create a right for that person to use cocaine instead, on the grounds that their specific physical makeup doesn’t allow them to enjoy alcohol, and they deserve something to “make up for it”? Obviously not, and we should not consider abortion any different; if men (or more specifically, penis-owners, depending on your views as to whether some men can get pregnant) by virtue of their physical makeup, can’t “enjoy” the specific right to abortion, society is not obligated to “make up for” that inability to utilize that right by creating a special right to paper abortion.
This is even more evident when one considers that pregnancy places burdens on women “naturally”, burdens that are generally disregarded when people make arguments about the unfairness to men when the government fails to provide a paper abortion option. The idea women have an unfair advantage in the situation becomes more ridiculous when one considers that this supposed advantage is a minor accidental consequence of the much larger unfairness in the reproductive process.
Paper abortion is unlikely to help men who feel burdened by child support payments “in the real world”. Moreover, the arguments made for paper abortion do not obtain.
In the first paragraph of this piece, I describe how support for paper abortion is correlated with support for a male “veto” right to their partner’s abortion and the belief that women shouldn’t be allowed to access elective abortion. Taken together, these beliefs maximize male control over reproduction. Savvy feminists should realize that support for paper abortion should be seen in this context; as an ideological position, it often reflects not pragmatic concerns over how best to help men or purely egalitarian concerns about fairness, but instead the long running struggle between men and women over power over the reproductive process.