John Tierney's attempt at abortion controversy

The New York Times columnist doesn't really want to change any abortion rules. He's just trying to get more mail.

Published January 11, 2006 12:00AM (EST)

There can only be one reason why John Tierney decided to devote his column today to the question of what rights men should have in the abortion decisions of women. It's not that he wanted to put forward his own views on abortion, because his views, he tells us, are relatively noncontroversial: He's pro-choice. And he couldn't have written it because he wanted to highlight how unfair it is that men can't tell their wives or girlfriends whether or not to continue their pregnancies, because a) the Times Op-Ed page has already covered that topic quite well, and b) after telling us how unfair things are for men, Tierney says that all the solutions to the problem are too onerous, and "I'd rather stick with the current system, unfair as it is ..." To summarize, then, Tierney picks a topic of white-hot controversy, one that stirs up both the gender wars and the abortion debate, but in the end advocates no real change to the status quo. On the Web, we call this "trolling" -- purposeless, gratuitous sensationalism, designed purely to anger people and cause the letters to come crashing in.

Ordinarily, I might have taken the bait, too. But as I said, it wasn't too long ago that the Times published a similar piece by New York University professor Dalton Conley calling for a greater say for men in reproductive decisions, and at that time, I fell flat on my face in responding -- first by arguing that men should have the right to compel women to abort their babies, and then by rethinking my position and deciding (like Tierney eventually does) that the status quo is probably best. So because this ground has been thoroughly debated already, and because I'm eating an uncommonly good bowl of vegetable gumbo right now, I'm not going to take on Tierney's concerns about the world being unfair to men.

But I did find something worth calling out in Tierney's column: "Most Americans," Tierney writes, "tell pollsters that they think a husband should be notified before an abortion." That stat surprised me; I couldn't believe that most Americans could support such a law (most Americans, after all, are women). But when I looked it up, I saw that Tierney was right. In a Gallup survey conducted in November, 64 percent of respondents said they would favor "a law requiring that the husband of a married woman be notified if she decides to have an abortion." This number is actually down from previous years -- in 1992, 73 percent said they'd support such a law -- but it's not good news for the pro-choice camp.

Now, there is one thing keeping such laws off the books: The 1992 Supreme Court decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, in which the court struck down a Pennsylvania husband-notification law. That ruling, penned by Justices O'Connor, Kennedy and Souter, declared that "it cannot be claimed that the father's interest in the fetus' welfare is equal to the mother's protected liberty, since it is an inescapable biological fact that state regulation with respect to the fetus will have a far greater impact on the pregnant woman's bodily integrity than it will on the husband."

Liberals are lucky, therefore, that there's a solid majority on the court willing to protect this fundamental right for women. Oh, wait ...

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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