A man's right to choose -- a second take on Dalton Conley

The New York Times opinion writer is a little bit right: A man should also have the right to abort his baby.

Published December 1, 2005 9:28PM (EST)

As one of the few men who write for Broadsheet (membership has its privileges), I've got to disagree with my colleague Sarah Karnasiewicz on the merits of Dalton Conley's pro-father Op-Ed in the New York Times. Many critics -- including some of the Salon readers who've already written in response to her post -- seem to view Conley's piece as a call to arms for the pro-life lobby. There's certainly a bit of truth to this view; after all, as Karnasiewicz points out, Conley writes approvingly of Judge Alito's pro-life decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and he appears more than a little bitter over his own experience with abortion (an old girlfriend he'd impregnated chose to end the pregnancy despite his desire to raise the child).

But if you read Conley's piece carefully, you see he's not necessarily arguing for any limits on abortion. Indeed, in Conley's ideal world, we might fairly see a great deal more abortions than we see now. That's because, as Karnasiewicz notes, Conley's call for fathers to have a greater say in whether an abortion occurs really means two things: One, that the father should have a right to veto an abortion, but also that the father should have a right to veto a pregnancy by insisting on an abortion. And to this second scenario -- giving a man a right to an abortion -- I say, Why not?

I agree with Karnasiewicz that there's something entirely too glib and impractical about Conley's rant, especially with regard to his view that a man should have some right to keep a pregnancy going despite a woman's wishes. I can't think of anything more cruel than forcing a woman to bear a child that she doesn't want just because the father disagrees. Conley's view of pregnancy as a merely inconvenient nine months -- "a small fraction" of a child's lifetime, he says -- overlooks the unfathomable biological and emotional complexity of motherhood. And it's this complexity, of course, that forms the core of the pro-choice argument: Those of us who support a woman's right to choose do so precisely because we understand there's nothing more difficult in this world than being a mother, and nobody -- not the government, not her parents and not the man she slept with -- should force a woman into that role.

But shouldn't the same argument apply in reverse? Fatherhood, for a variety of reasons, is not as difficult as motherhood; a father doesn't get pregnant, doesn't nurse, doesn't risk his life in the service of reproduction. But as Conley notes, paternity is increasingly a more thorny business than it used to be. More and more, modern society -- not least the liberals and feminists among us -- compels fathers to take a greater role in the care and feeding of children. These days we even have a name for dads who don't fulfill their roles: We call them deadbeats, and we mete out severe legal punishment for their bad behavior.

But if there are greater stakes to fatherhood these days, Conley's right that men ought to be given a greater say over whether they want to play that role. If it's unconscionable to force a woman to raise a child she doesn't want, it seems no less unconscionable to force a man to father against his wishes. Conley tells of a male friend whose girlfriend insisted on having his child even after he'd broken off his engagement with her. As I see it, this man is in the same position that antiabortion activists want to force on women in this country: He's got no say in whether he becomes a parent; the decision is in someone else's hands, not his own.

No doubt, my position on this is informed by my sex; I suspect a great many women would disagree with my suggestion that they should be forced to end pregnancies because the men they slept with can't stand the idea of becoming fathers. I'll also admit there's something selfish about my view -- if I were in Conley's friend's shoes, I'd like the legal right to choose not to become a father. At the very least, I'd like the chance to be absolved of my fatherly obligations -- for instance, the obligation to financially support the child.

But there's no getting around selfishness in matters of disputed reproduction. Those of us who want to keep abortion legal invariably cast the matter as one of choice. But choice is selfish; when women choose not to become mothers, they're doing what they feel is best for themselves. Men deserve the same right.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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