Carol Sanger Replies to Linda McClain: Man Decides Against Fatherhood!!

I am hugely grateful to Linda McClain not only for taking on but for expanding the research program suggested in my “innovative” (Linda’s kind words) chapter Fathers and Fetuses: What Would Men Do?   The fact that it is innovative (and it is!) takes us to one problem about how abortion gets talked about: men fall out of the picture, except when, like Mike Pence and his accompanying swarm of other white men (plus now Charmaine Yoest) they are setting abortion policy.

This chapter attempts to put men into the picture not as policy makers but as players in the actual world of reproductive decision making.  Although McClain gets exactly what I am with this approach to show that decisions about becoming a parent may be more generic than gendered, she puts the question of whether the attempt will “make a theoretical or practice difference?”  Ouch!  More specifically, McClain asks whether knowing about “men’s moral reasoning” will   “make women’s moral reasoning seem more ‘moral’ or ‘responsible’?”

I think the answer is yes, but I want to clarify two points.  The first concerns the characterization of the reasons men gave in the frozen embryo cases I looked at as “moral reasoning.”  There was almost no discussion at all of morality in the embryo or the surrogacy cases.  Consider the case of the father who rejected a disabled newborn born to a surrogate mother on the ground that no child of his could have such defects. Morality didn’t come into the calculus, at least in any overt or articulated way.  Other men didn’t want their embryos implanted because they didn’t like the ex, they had enough children, or they were single again (woo-hoo!) and didn’t want to be burdened by fatherhood.  They didn’t say a thing about ending embryonic or fetal life, or about that having been an aspect of what concerned them.  It was all much more straightforward and practical and no nonsense.  In this regard, their explanations contrasted to the thought processes of women, where at least some today confront the fact of what an abortion does (though most proceed anyway). Yet the stories of women today differ from those of women who chose abortion before it was legal and for whom being able to terminate their pregnancy was an unqualified relief.

But assuming that, for example, “having enough children” includes “taking care of them properly.”  Then we do have a moral calculus and so to McClain’s question: “Is the moral calculus in a man’s decision about when to become a parent likely to change the mind of someone who believes abortion decisions are primarily made for reasons of ‘convenience’?”  McClain is skeptical, especially when it comes to legislators. Avoiding responsibility is not enough to excuse taking the life that anti-abortion activists vest in all forms of prenatal life, and this is likely to be true, says McClain whether the shirker is a man or a women.  Indeed, in recent weeks we have gotten a peek at how men too are on occasion regarded as selfish or at least disenfranchised from adult responsibility for not having children.  During the French elections, the accusation was hurled at Emmanuel Macron by his opponent Marine Le Pen: “He talks to us about the future, but he doesn’t have children.”  That argument (nor any other) carried the day, though one wonders what would have happened had the shoe been on the other foot. Even Margaret Thatcher knew she needed to have children in order to improve her Conservative street cred.  (Lucky for her she had twins and got it over with at once.)

Let us return to McClain’s suggestion that knowing the parallels between men and women’s reasons isn’t going to move the needle toward a greater understanding of women. I therefore agree with McClain that this interesting information may not (yet) be a persuasive pitch to pro-life legislators.  This is because its present value may be for women alone. And what is the value to women?  It is to suggest to them that they are not wicked, because men make the same decision and no one calls them selfish or immoral.  It is to see that the decision was not whimsical but rational—just like the decision of some men on the same matter—despite the tinge of disrepute that hovers over the woman’s choice.

But not much hovers over men.  After all, if men were regarded as badly as aborting women, then it would be fitting for pro-life activists to protest outside vasectomy clinics, or for legislators to enact a waiting period, or require that video of life-begetting sperm swimming around be offered at the clinic before consent is valid, or to produce their very own sperm, as with mandatory ultrasound.  But we don’t require any of this, and not just because sperm are different in kind from embryos.   It is because male reproductive behavior is understood differently than women’s.  Men were never assigned the “paramount destiny and mission of … fulfill[ing] the noble and benign offices of wife and mother, that Justice Bradley announced in his concurrence in Bradley v. Illinois. And those familiar with the oft quoted line know who made this assignment: “This is the law of the Creator.”

I am trying to show women that men have similar concerns when it comes to deciding about parenthood, even discounting for the fact that in calculating their preference, men do not have to weigh in the pregnancy and child birth that precede childbirth nor the years of childcare that follow it.  It is the dense underbrush of maternalistic ideology that makes it hard to see or accept the equivalency or to push it publicly.  Nevertheless, as an internal readjustment of what women themselves experience—that their decision is “wrong but the right thing to do”—might drop the wrong all together. There may be solace in seeing a gender-free universality of what some men and some women regard as necessary for flourishing on their own terms.

I am deeply grateful to Linda for pushing me on all this; I am not a theorist of the family as is Linda.  In responding to her post, I went back and read nearly two decades of her work on abortion.  I will mention only one piece, a chapter called Equality, Oppression, and Abortion: Women Who Oppose Abortion Rights in the Name of Feminism that took on gender as a problem among women themselves.  (Editors of Concurring Opinions! Please invite me to be a commentator when Linda puts these pieces together into her own book on abortion.)

The chapter is from an anthology called Feminist Nightmares: Women At Odds. But like Linda, I am tired of abortion being a nightmare for women, instead of a decision, however morally imbued it may be for many, that they are capable of making.  As a way of moving things forward, Linda has suggested research avenues that might clarify the role of gender in the public politics of abortion and in its private practices as well.  A fruitful place might be at the decision making process or consultations between partners confronted by an unwanted pregnancy, or at the advice that trusted men friends give to women in contrast to the advice by trusted women friends.  (To date, scholarly work has focused on the accounts of men whose ex-girlfriends had an abortion which gives us only an after glimpse; there are also healing and forgiveness online sites for men suffering from their complicity or loss regarding a pregnancy that was terminated.)

Each of us brings our own skill set (that was for male readers) to the question of abortion.  What this Symposium has shown me was that our distinctive interests and approaches results not only in an important division of analytical labor but in a generous and deeply intellectual exchange that will advance our collective interest in this topic.  As Dave Pozen said at the start, what Sanger is after is “less heat and more light.” I want to thank Linda McClain and the other contributors for providing a lot more light. I am grateful.

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