In the battle over choice, what about dads?

A provocative New York Times Op-Ed says fathers should have the power to veto abortions.

Published December 1, 2005 6:35PM (EST)

Like a can of lighter fluid tossed on a raging fire, Dalton Conley's Op-Ed in today's New York Times is guaranteed to add even more heat to the already burning debate over abortion rights in America. At the crux of his essay is this contrarian question: Why isn't choice an issue of fathers' rights?

Conley charges right into the fray, praising Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito's 1991 opinion in Pennsylvania's Planned Parenthood v. Casey case -- notorious in liberal circles -- for daring to "think about the role of men in reproductive decision-making," a role that has grown especially complicated in an age of readily available DNA testing.

So does Conley see anything wrong with Alito's assertion that the government "has a legitimate interest in furthering the husband's interest in the fate of the fetus"?

Now that you ask -- yes, it doesn't go far enough.

Rather than relying on a marriage contract to determine who gets a reproductive say-so, Conley contends that the power to veto abortion should be extended to all fathers who wish to raise their children, whether or not they intend to make a similar commitment to the mother.

For effect, Conley draws heavily upon personal experience. He tells readers that "about a decade ago" he impregnated a girlfriend who, despite his desire to keep the child, elected to terminate the pregnancy. "What right did I have to stop her? As it turned out, none," he writes, with more than a hint of bitterness. "It was, indeed, a woman's right to choose."

It is a history that has begun haunting him even more, he says, since a friend began grappling with the opposite dilemma: his former fiancée is pregnant with his child and has chosen to keep the baby. About the fiancée's decision, Conley attempts diplomacy, writing, "That is her right, of course, and nobody should be able to take that away." But his next sentence makes it clear that it is a right he believes should come with conditions. "When men and women engage in sexual relations both parties recognize the potential for creating life," he says. "If both parties willingly participate then shouldn't both have a say in whether to keep a baby that results?"

To bolster his argument, Conley points out that while liberals and conservatives have spent the past two decades butting heads over abortion, those legal and social initiatives that try to strengthen fatherhood -- like paternity testing and increased enforcement of child support -- have been greeted with bipartisan support.

And that's where Conley finds his point (and generously provides the nascent "father's choice" movement with a catchy little jingle):

"If you play, you must pay. But if you pay, you should get some say."

Like his pithy slogan, Conley gamely offers a logical, concise response to every challenge. Go ahead, ask: "Can't a woman claim a greater right to choice, since she alone bears the physical brunt of pregnancy?" Hold on, Conley counters, "how many times have we heard that fatherhood is not about a moment, it is about being there for the lifetime of a child? If we extend that logic, those 40 weeks of pregnancy -- as intense as they may be -- are merely a small fraction of a lifetime commitment to that child."

Ah. It's so sensitive, so fair, so ... simple. And that's the problem. In his polemic about paternal rights, Conley brushes over the practical legal and logistical headaches that enforcing and adjudicating such decisions would entail.

It's a very slippery slope he's asking us to climb. Where does a father's right end? On the one hand Conley affirms his friend's fiancée's right to keep their child, but on the other he says, "If you pay, you should have a say." Does that mean fathers should be given a right to choose only when that choice is to raise the child? Or is Conley willing to follow his sharp logic to its rather more disturbing end: namely, that such choice should also mean that fathers have the ability to enforce abortions in cases when they do not wish to take responsibility for supporting the child?

The portrait Conley paints of responsible fatherhood may be lovely, but it's not real, and it hides an ethical mess. No doubt, these discussions need to be had. But they need to be seen through the lens of real life, not rose-colored glasses.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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