A man's right to choose, take five

Dalton Conley, the academic who argued that men should have a say in abortion decisions, now says his position is "feminist."

By Farhad Manjoo

Published December 10, 2005 12:22AM (EST)

Dalton Conley, director of New York University's Center for Advanced Social Science Research, I love you! I say this without a hint of irony or cynicism; I declare it in complete candor, even though I realize that, since we are both heterosexual men, our love could never work (unless we can get our hands on what you call a "momb," the yet-to-be-invented male womb).

But even if our love must remain unrequited and unfulfilled, let me explain it anyway: It is true, Dalton, that by writing in the New York Times last week about the rights of fathers in abortion decisions, you enriched my career and conversation immeasurably, inspiring two of my posts here (one insane, and one less so) and even landing me on the radio to talk about you. And you are obviously clever, thoughtful, sincere, and not a bad looker. But I love you for something more: Dalton, you are so, so innocent. Some might even say naove. And some might even say you're a douche. But I say you're ... hot!

Your latest bit of writing -- an expanded defense and clarification of your NYT piece, published on The Huffington Post -- illustrates exactly what I mean. In it, you say that your NYT article -- in which you argued that if a father wants a kid and a mother does not, he should have the right to veto her abortion -- expressed an essentially "feminist" point of view. Your calculus here is a doozy: You're so coldly logical, so arcanely academic, so blindly ignorant of all the human complexity attendant to disputed pregnancies that I can't tell if you're serious, or if you're just arguing for the sake of argument, like a mathematician gleefully polishing a proof. The grace and felicity with which you fly over the concerns of real-world people toward the tidy abstractions of men and women that dance about in your head -- this makes me want to kiss you, on the lips, without mistletoe.

Before I get carried away too far, let me tell the people, in a nutshell, your logic: Men, you say, currently suffer from a kind of "disability" -- they lack the ability to conceive and carry children. This disability not only harms men (by giving them no say over whether they become parents) but also women, since they are forced to bear all of the physical and emotional needs of the developing child, and are also expected, by dint of biology, to bear most of the post-pregnancy child-raising responsibilities. Therefore, until scientists invent a "momb," men and women will always have "asymmetrical" relationships, and the asymmetry will fuel the oppression of women, since it allows men to so easily abdicate their child-rearing duties.

One way to mitigate the inherent asymmetry, you say, is by crafting legislation that makes up for men's disability (their lack of a womb) by giving them more legal say over what happens to a fetus in the woman's womb. The legal picture would look like this: a woman would still retain her right to abort, unless a man was willing to compensate her for her time and use of her womb. The financial specifics of the arrangement would be determined by -- and this is the kind of thing I love about you -- an independent arbitration panel, or by a contract that that men and women sign before sex. (The contract, you offer helpfully, would be "downloadable in PDF format for those moments of passion -- might take less time than fumbling with a condom.")

In a world in which men and women were forced, by law, to think about their decisions to have sex before they actually took off their clothes, "Heterosexual couples might enter sexual relationships more cautiously (on average) with adequate discussion of reproductive possibilities," you write. "Practice of birth control may become more widespread. And, I think, fathers would be more involved in the raising of children, thereby easing the second shift for women and leading to greater gender equality."

Some people might say, Dalton, that you don't understand how the world works. What most people call fucking, you think of as the institution of a legal contract. What most people see as love, and the loss of love, or lust, and the sudden loss of lust, you see merely as instances of economic and legal couplings and decouplings. (You even -- hilariously, I might add -- ponder the nature of such contracts: "One view of insemination sees it as a gift contract, a donation of sperm over which the man has no further claims; however, this flies in the face of the financial responsibility of the father for what the woman does with that gift.")

I don't want to be the one to tell you, Dalton, that much of what you propose about how to adjust for the biological differences between men and women won't really work; your ideas are impractical, unenforceable, and even a bit whimsical. I don't want to be the one to tell you because I don't want to burst your bubble. You are a sweet and lovely man, and my offer to oneday share your momb still stands. Don't you ever change, Dalton. I love you just the way you are.

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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