Saturday, December 10, 2005

Reframing the Abortion Debate?

Two recent articles, in the New York and the Los Angeles Times respectively, examine the abortion debate in an interesting (although I'd suspect not an entirely novel) light.
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The first, by Dalton Conley in the New York Times, wonders whether a man should have a say when a woman decides she wants an abortion. Conley argues in the affirmative, suggesting that a man should have the right to obtain an injunction preventing the woman from aborting the pregnancy, even if the two aren't married.

Meghan Daum, in the LA Times, takes the argument a step farther and wonders whether men don't deserve even more extensive rights. If, she argues, our goal is to promote equality of choice, then shouldn't both adults have the right to influence whether or not the pregnancy will proceed? While Daum doesn't suggest that men should be granted the right to force an abortion, she does speculate that, just perhaps, men should be able to legally sever their financial and legal ties to an unwanted and unborn child, at least up to a certain point in the pregnancy.

What's interesting is that both of these suggestions, in different ways, cut across traditional pro-life / pro-choice battle lines and reframe the abortion rights question as one of equality between the man and the woman. Both Conley and Daum are quick to mention the considerable difficulties with their proposals - and equally quick to point out that a cataloguing of those difficulties shouldn't be the beginning, middle, and end of this discussion.

As for me, I'm not altogether sure what to make of this. I self-identify as pro-choice because, in accordance with Mill's harm principle, I could never conceive of telling another person, male or female, what they could or could not do with their own body.

And viewed from that angle, Daum's proposal actually seems less radical than Conley's. No matter how committed the father is to raising the child, he can't birth it. And, though I can't speak from experience, I suspect that the type of pain inflicted on the mother during child birth would, in a criminal context, be on the order of cruel and unusual. Conley's position seems fundamentally compatible with a pro-choice attitude toward abortion, at least when that attitude is derived from a belief in a woman's right to autonomous control of her body.

However, while I don't think I could support a measure that would allow a father to force a woman to bring a child to term, I'm not so certain that Daum's proposal is without merit.

First, and importantly, it would not require women to have an abortion in order to let the man off the hook. While it would certainly alter the landscape of abortion decisions - such a rule would be a substantial consideration when a woman wanted to bring the child to term but felt unable to do so without financial support from the male involved - this limitation of freedom would be one of degree, not of kind, and would be balanced by an increased freedom for the male involved.

Off the top of my head, one particularly problematic element of Daum's proposal (which she does not address) is that it shifts the responsibility for contraception almost entirely to the woman, at least with respect to birth control. If a man can opt out (legally and financially) of an unwanted pregnancy without any reprecussions, he has a much weaker incentive to avoid creating such a situation in the first place. The woman, on the other hand, still must carefully consider contraception or risk a difficult (as well as costly, and potentially dangerous) decision about abortion. Of course, this entire concern should be mooted by concern for STDs, but I suspect that would nto be the case.

And there are, no doubt, plenty of other serious holes in Daum's proposal. But it's an interesting idea and, as long as we're going to continue to reargue the abortion debate anyway, it might as well receive a full hearing.

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