A Man's Right to Choose?

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Should a man be forced to be a father if he doesn't want to be? Yet another front in the abortion wars reopens now that the National Center for Men has undertaken a crusade to establish a "Roe v. Wade for Men." "Up until now, reproductive choice has been seen as a woman's issue: you're either pro-life or pro-choice," says center Director Mel Feit. "We're adding another element. If we expect men to be responsible, isn't it right to give them some choices too?"

It's a legal stunt, but as a way of calling attention to double standards and unintended consequences, the campaign makes sense. Matt Dubay, a 25-year-old computer programmer in Michigan, was ordered to pay child support after his former girlfriend had a baby. He says he had made it clear when they were dating that he did not want to have children; she had said she couldn't get pregnant anyway because of a medical condition. When she did get pregnant, he argues, she could have chosen to have an abortion. So shouldn't he have a choice as well, about whether to support a child he never wanted to have?

Dubay and the center filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, which raises all kinds of confounding questions about rights and choice and what we really mean by equality, when we look at the social and biological roles played by men and women in the course of becoming parents. Feit argues that within a short window of time after discovering an unplanned pregnancy — he has proposed a month, but thinks a week might even be more appropriate — a man should have the right to terminate his legal and financial obligations to the child. "I'm not talking about fathers opting out of obligations that they've committed to," Feit says. "I mean early in pregnancy, if contraception failed, men should have a choice, and women have a right to know what that choice is as they decide how to proceed."

His argument gains force as more and more states pass laws requiring, as part of pre-abortion counseling, that pregnant women be informed that the baby's father has a legal obligation to pay child support. These rules were a response to evidence that the overwhelming majority of women seeking abortions do so for social and economic rather than medical reasons. Abortion opponents hope that by informing women about the legal and financial support systems available to them, including the father's obligations, they might reduce the number who choose abortion.

But solving one problem may just be creating another: pregnancy counselors find that another great source of pressure on ambivalent women is often the father of the child. As states crack down on "deadbeat dads," men have a greater financial incentive to pressure women into ending unwanted pregnancies. Some threaten to break up with their partner if she doesn't get an abortion. There is concern that violence against pregnant women is fueled by men trying to avoid a financial liability. So Dubay could argue that allowing men to shed their financial obligations for unwanted children might protect women from all kinds of pressure when they are deciding how to handle an unplanned pregnancy.

The larger philosophical argument is basically this: Do men have as much of a right to control their reproductive lives and financial futures as women do? "Roe v. Wade really changed the world for women," Feit says. "It allowed them to separate intimacy from procreation, freed them from the fear of contraceptive failure. That kind of empowerment and security that women feel in intimate relations — well, men can't, frankly." The only sure protection is total abstinence. Feit contends that men who don't want to have a child and made reasonable efforts to avoid it should at least be able to choose a "financial abortion" that frees them from any responsibility for the baby.

In a sense women already have a version of that right: Most states have laws permitting a woman to relinquish all her parental responsibilities if she leaves a baby at a hospital after giving birth. "No shame. No blame. No names" says the poster on the bus shelter. Naturally such laws are designed to offer an alternative to the heartbreaking stories we read of babies dumped in trash cans and abandoned by the side of the road.

The rights of fathers have always been the background noise of the abortion debate. Beginning with Planned Parenthood v. Danforth in 1976, then in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, state efforts to require that fathers be notified before women have abortions were struck down by the Supreme Court as placing too great a burden on women. A majority of Americans approve of spousal notification, provided there are exceptions for women in abusive situations, and when he was an appeals court judge Sam Alito upheld such a provision. But the Supreme Court ruled in Casey that "it cannot be claimed that the father's interest in the fetus' welfare is equal to the mother's protected liberty...." Requiring a woman to notify her husband before an abortion, the Justices argued, "embodies a view of marriage" that is "repugnant to this court's present understanding of marriage and of the nature of the rights secured by the Constitution."

Wanda Franz, president of National Right to Life, is glad to see Dubay's case calling attention to the mixed messages society sends to men. "He's basically saying that a woman now has the right to engage in sex relations without worrying about having a child she's responsible for. He wants the same right — to be able to have sex with a woman and if she gets pregnant, he shouldn't have to be responsible, since he can't force her to have an abortion legally."

Franz says that she is, of course, in favor of both parents' taking responsibility for a child, an impulse that she says legal abortion has undermined. One obvious problem, if men can sever their financial ties to unwanted children, is what becomes of that child, particularly as states cut back on health care and social services. "What I expect to hear [from the court] is that the way things are is not really fair, but that's the way it is," Dubay told the Associated Press. "Just to create awareness would be enough, to at least get a debate started."

Still, Feit has been surprised by the response he's gotten so far. "It doesn't break down along traditional gender lines," he says. "We're getting so much support from women." The men divide roughly half and half between those who support what he's doing and those who say essentially "be a man; accept responsibility." "Women seem more supportive, which is very surprising and gratifying. They say maybe this is fair, men should have some say, some choice. I'm getting more support from women than I anticipated." He is the first to say that these are not easy questions. So sometimes just asking them is the right place to start.