Men’s stake in reproductive justice

I was so touched by this courageously personal piece by Aaron Traister (yes, related to the Rebecca) on men’s involvement in reproductive justice over at Salon (mentioned yesterday). Traister talked about his own mother’s as well as a former girlfriend’s abortion, in addition to how grateful he is to Planned Parenthood for proving his wife with access to contraception from the time she first became sexually active. An excerpt:

I don’t understand how these issues are still simply referred to as “women’s issues.” The destinies of men and women are intertwined by sex, and pregnancy, and childbirth. It is time for more men to sack up and start taking responsibility for their end of the conversation. These “women’s issues” have shaped my life: my birth, my adulthood and the children for which I am forever grateful. So yes, I support women’s health programs and a woman’s right to choose.

I’ve advocated for hearing more men’s voices when it comes to reproductive justice issues, myself. From an Alternet piece from 2007:

The pro-choice movement, and feminists in general, seem to have historically shied away from the difficult but imperative task of involving men in conversations about abortion. It is understandable that the movement has been weary; no hot-button issue brings out more manipulation than this one. But it is time that feminists’ commitment to equality, as well as the quality of both women and men’s lives, trumps their fear that acknowledging men’s hardships will only serve as fodder for pro-life spin doctors. There must be a way to talk about men’s perspectives and experiences without compromising women’s bodies.

One of the greatest roadblocks that keeps men from becoming reproductive justice advocates appears–based on both Traister’s piece and the interviews I did back in the day–to be that men worry that any ambivalence they feel about abortion disqualifies them for activism in defense of it. I have a lot of empathy for this weariness, but urge men to recognize that they’re “mixed feelings” about abortion are no different than their mixed feelings about any other political or spiritual issue. These things are complex and nuanced and no one really knows what is definitively right or wrong. At the end of the day, we’re all–women and men alike–just trying to live and love and do what’s best for ourselves and our families.

What we do know is that everybody deserves to make those complex, nuanced decisions for themselves, about their own bodies. In other words, men, no matter how daunted by the issue itself, should be screaming “Keep your laws off my mom’s, girlfriend’s, sister’s, friend’s, daughter’s bodies!” right alongside the rest of us.

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  • AMM

    men worry that any ambivalence they feel about abortion disqualifies them for activism in defense of it.

    That is not what I took from Aaron’s article. I saw him saying that abortion is often a difficult decision, where no matter what you do there’s going to be loss and suffering, and which affects more than just the woman who has (or doesn’t have) the abortion, but in the current climate, there is no room for people to talk about their mixed feelings. Every comment about any abortion is appropriated as an argument “for abortion” or “against abortion.”

    He’s also saying that men are presumed to have less of a right to even have feelings about whether a woman they have a connection with has or does not have an abortion, because any talk about what men feel is seen as interfering with a woman’s right to choose.

    In other words, men, no matter how daunted by the issue itself, should be screaming “Keep your laws off my mom’s, girlfriend’s, sister’s, friend’s, daughter’s bodies!”

    This sounds an awful lot like, “who cares what you think? Support our side!”

    You write:

    I’ve advocated for hearing more men’s voices when it comes to reproductive justice issues, myself.

    but “hearing” means actually listening, even when you don’t agree with them.[*]

    It’s not just men who are being left out. I’ve heard from a number of women who are ambivalent about abortion and aren’t comfortable with either side in the abortion shouting match. At the moment, there is really no place for people who aren’t hard-liners to be heard.

    Again, listening to someone is not the same as agreeing with them. But it does mean not simply writing off those who disagree with you as Teh Enemy.

    [*] In my experience, people’s minds are rarely changed by cogent arguments, let alone by shouting. However, if you listen to them — just listen with an open mind for as long as it takes — you often give them the opportunity to change their own minds.

  • Zed Pobre

    I’m a male so far into the reproductive rights camp that I have some difficulty at times remembering that it is possible to take the opposing view and still be simultaneously educated and sane. Despite that, I am nowadays very reluctant to write or speak on the topic (or any other women’s rights topic) if there are any women present that I don’t know well. Sometimes I make exception when I am confining my statements strictly to purely factual scientific or legal notes, but I waffled a while before re-registering for an account here even to write this, where hearing a man’s voice has been almost explicitly requested.

    Short version: I don’t really feel that my voice is welcome here. The long version is, well, long.

    Part of the problem is that it has been pointed out to me rather convincingly that if you have an interest in women’s rights, it’s generally a good idea to shut up and let them talk when possible. I’m relatively comfortable with that, and there are more and more situations as time goes on where my help is pretty clearly not needed anyway.

    Part of it, however, is because there is a notable tendency among many (though by no means all) feminists to instantly presume bad faith (not just incorrectness!) the instant a man disagrees. This is, regrettably, understandable — after all, there are enough men jumping at the chance to shut down a woman’s voice by reflex or design that this assumption is probably even right more often than not.

    Understandable or not, though, it is an unanswerable accusation, and a highly effective means of shutting down the voice of a man who is there in good faith (ironically, it is much more effective than on men who are not). After all, what is one to do? Fill the thread with much protestation of innocence, likely to do more harm than good? Yell over the voices of the women?

    An answer to this is of course that any public discourse requires at least a moderately thick skin; one is on the internet after all, and it often takes heroic effort to keep a public form clean of even the overtly hostile. If you want to say anything at all, you have to learn to ignore the occasional attack. Fair enough. Another answer is, well, maybe you’re just being a sexist prick too sensitive about being corrected.. That’s also possible. It’s harder for someone not steeped from birth in the injustice to realize when your finger is on the wrong side of the scales, and mistakes will be made. I do my best to try to listen, and take some time to think, even when a correction comes with the heat of considerable rage, but I’ll have to admit that some conversations come easier than others, and in the best of them I will not always fully agree, even after some thought. I like to think there should be room even in a conversation between a man and a woman on the topic of feminism for that to happen and everyone still walk away friends, though of course I’m not exactly in a position to be an arbiter, but the point is that I can work with disagreement, even strong disagreement. (I remember semi-fondly a discussion I was involved in here on Feministing where the final opinion by a woman whose writing I respected on one of my comments was merely, after much explanation on my part, that it wasn’t as offensive as it seemed at first glance. We didn’t agree on the main topic in the end, but I don’t think either of us walked away horrified by the other, and from the comments of some other women, it was an educational experience about power dynamics and psychological development all around, and not just to me.)

    Harder to work with, however, is when nobody is willing to counter an accusation of pure bad faith or make the presumption that perhaps there is a rational disagreement in process; that carries a message from the community, not just one abrasive personality. It says, You’re not with us all the way, so you’re not one of us. We don’t want your kind here after all. As an example, I remember, much less fondly, another discussion where I made the mistake of using the word ‘concerned’. I knew it was a mistake almost as soon as I re-read my comment after posting, and I was not disappointed in my prediction: within a few posts, I’d been accused of being a concern troll.

    I was a semi-regular commenter back then, and I was posting in disagreement with a main post far less frequently than I was posting in its defense, but now I was accused of being a troll in tones ever more angry despite (IIRC) having constrained myself pretty much to the science side of things. My attempts to bring the tone of the conversation back to civility did not go well; eventually someone just flat-out said that men probably shouldn’t do anything but head-nod or be silent in sensitive topics, and nobody disagreed. I think one other woman called her out on the trolling accusation, but that was it.

    I’ve seen that happen over and over again since, in various places, in that context and others. ‘Concern trolling’ eventually seems to have drifted out of the primary accusation list, to be replaced, most recently, by the far less offensive ‘mansplaining’, but I’ve still seen the latter wielded like a club more than once to shut down discussion with someone who was fundamentally in agreement, but a little leery of some of the details. In fairness, much more often than not it’s wielded against someone who is clearly there in bad faith. Sometimes, however, its use is less clear, the wielding that of a berserker with a warhammer, not a judge with a gavel. The resounding lack of calls to slow down a moment still says, We don’t want your kind here.

    Well, okay. Feministing in particular was created in part to provide a safe place for women to find voices, and the situation is not that much different at many other feminist blogs. It’s not there for people like me. This may be the cost of doing business — I don’t have any easy answers about how to keep a place safe for women to write without being shut down and simultaneously encourage men to voice what support they can, when tempers will be running hot on a topic of injustice, and one often personally experienced. Maybe it has to be taken to a different venue; I still engage other men in public who say or do something blatantly sexist, and I’m still implacably hostile or mocking to anyone ardently supporting the forced-birth movement, and feel more comfortable doing so there than here, so if you’re looking for places to nudge men into raising a voice, perhaps it’s best to watch for those spots in general conversations, and later ask the men you know who are sympathetic to the cause why they didn’t speak up if they didn’t, or thank them if they did. If it’s someone who’s been around a forum long enough to be known as polite and generally a supporter, and someone goes for the hammer, maybe it’s even possible for a woman to tell another woman in public in such a place, ‘That was out of line,’ without pouring gasoline on the fire, though I’ve seen that go badly as well.

    Just be aware that there is a price to stringent defense, however necessary it may be. When small disagreements blossom easily into “go away, you’re just a troll who hates women” don’t be too surprised when after a while not many men will speak up in such an environment unless they are very confident that they agree 100% about everything, or don’t have much vested interest in agreeing at all.

    It’s very difficult to agree 100% about everything. Even in cases where someone obviously just doesn’t get it, but is at least listening in good faith, there may be related topics where understanding comes faster. If you want to involve men in discussions where you can agree at all, if you want to get men’s voices screaming in support of what they can, some tolerance is required.

  • mohammed

    It’s rather disingenuous to expect men to enter in the dialog but not have an opinion outside of pro-abortion. Would you have been touched by the author’s article if he were, say, speaking against abortion?

    The issue is more complicated, both legally and ethically, than how feminists portray it.

    • Lauren R. LeFevre-Wetterhahn

      Probably not. I’m betting she would probably be irritated like me, given the high number of male voices already expressing themselves with no need for further encouragement on the anti-choice side.

      I also don’t think that Courtney is asking men “to enter in the dialog” [sic] concerning the morality of abortion. I believe she is encouraging pro-choice men to speak up more about why they support a woman’s right to choose. After all, they do have a stake in protecting the legality of and access to safe abortions since between one in three and one in four women will have one at some point in their lives.

  • Neil

    One way to involve men in the broader debate over reproductive freedom, in my opinion, is to think about male reproductive freedom. Although men do not carry children, they do reproduce, and there are consequences. These consequences include 18 years of child support and the emotional burden of knowing you have a child and the felt obligation to have a relationship with that child.

    Reproductive freedom for women has meant the ability to end a pregnancy that has begun, whether through accident or intentionally, but that is no longer wanted. Men have no such option, and have the obligation to accept the consequences of conception should the woman determine that the pregnancy will be brought to term. The resulting moral and financial burden can be quite onerous, as “deadbeat” dads are roundly calumnied and are the only debtors that we still imprison for inability to make good.

    One way to entice men to be pro-choice would be to advocate for a meaningful post-conception abdication of responsibility which is akin to a woman’s right to choose abortion, but also necessarily different. Policy options range from reducing the legal burden on unemployed accidental fathers to a full first trimester legal option modeled on a closed adoption which, after a one time payment to the mother, fully removes accidental fathers from the burdens and rewards of parenthood. This would put women and men on a more equal footing with respect to reproductive freedom, and give men a powerful incentive to support reproductive freedom for all.

  • Zed

    Neil, not to chase away a potential supporter, but I want to make sure you realize what you just requested.

    You just asked women who are frequently facing abandonment issues already to spend their time and effort to make that problem worse, as a token of barter to bring in men on the margin to agree that it’s wrong for them to be forcibly used as living incubators even if it kills them or destroys the lives of their existing children and imprisoned if they attempt to decline or help someone attempting to decline.

    Somehow, I find it implausible that someone who doesn’t already agree that this is wrong is going to accept that barter anyway, but regardless, the price is absurdly high.

  • Neil

    Hello Zed and thanks for your reply,

    For the purposes of this argument, I am not talking about pregnancies which are the result of rape or pregnancies where abortion is medically indicated. I am talking about abortion that is not medically indicated and is sought for personal reasons.

    A few points:

    You speak of imprisonment, but I would bet that there are a great deal more men in prison for failure to pay child support than there are females who were imprisoned for seeking an abortion. Abortion is, of course, legal on demand in the first trimester as a matter of federal constitutional law, and has been for many years. Given these facts, it is men who are the ones forced to accept the consequences of conception as soon as it occurs.

    For the record, I support the right to choose abortion because I think that the individual right to self-determination in the act of starting a family is more important than a fetus or zygote’s interest in life. That being said, it is the natural consequences of conception, and not in most cases a diabolical plot to press them into service as incubators, that legal abortion has allowed women to avoid. If it is wrong to prevent a woman who has conceived voluntarily but without intent from having an abortion, thus causing her to have to carry a fetus for nine months, why is it right to force a man who has impregnated voluntarily but without intent to face financial, legal, and moral consequences for 18 years? Their conduct leading up to conception was, after all, the same.

    My argument then, while admittedly somewhat tongue in cheek, is meant to bring out this disequilibrium. I am saying that a reproductive freedom that takes seriously both men and women’s individual right to self direction in family life would be more attractive than a pro-choice movement that says to men “reproductive freedom for me, but not for thee.”

  • Caitlin

    Really interesting discussion. I am glad to see that there are some male voices present as I am sure it can be kind of intimidating at times to voice an opinion on a feminist site. On the topic of unwilling father’s and paying child support I just wanted to point out that everybody knows that one of the unintended consequences of sex is reproduction, so if these men don’t want any responsibility for a child they should either be abstaining or making damn sure that they have good birth control.

    Doubtless the topic is a bit more complicated than this assessment allows, but I am always a bit upset when I hear about father’s complaining about the expenses of child support as child support payments are an incredibly small amount of money when you take into account the expenses of raising a child.

    I do agree however, that the negotiation of pregnancy can be difficult for men as it often falls to the woman to decide what will happen to the baby, but lets remember that this is something growing inside of a woman’s body and as such an extension of her body to which she should have some control during the course of a pregnancy.

    This is not a simplistic issue and I welcome debate of my comments.