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> Columns > Boston Globe > Reproductive rights for men?

Reproductive rights for men?

By Cathy Young | August 12, 2002

Eearlier this month, a Pennsylvania judge issued a controversial order temporarily barring a woman from having an abortion after her former boyfriend, who was responsible for the pregnancy, sued to stop her. Feminists and abortion rights advocates were outraged and stunned, calling the decision ''an abuse of the legal system,'' ''a travesty'' and ''a disgrace.'' A few days later, the judge dissolved the injunction (which became moot when the young woman miscarried).

In fact, under current law in every state in this country, the man had no say in the woman's decision to end the pregnancy - or to have his baby and make him liable for child support. Is this justice for women, or an injustice to men? ''Men's rights are trampled on all the time when it comes to reproductive rights,'' Dianna Thompson, executive director of the American Coalition of Fathers and Children, told the media.

To some extent, inequality is rooted in the sexes' very different roles in reproduction. Once, biology colluded with male privilege so that women bore the brunt of the consequences of sex. Today, many men, and some women, see a situation in which women have rights and choices, while men have responsibilities and are expected to support any choice a woman makes.

''If she wants an abortion, he's supposed to shut down all of his emotional bonding to the child,'' says Fred Hayward, founder of the Sacramento, Calif., group Men's Rights Inc. ''Then, if she changes her mind and decides to have the baby, he's supposed to turn it all back on and be a father.''

John Stachokus, the man involved in the Pennsylvania case, asserts that he and his ex-girlfriend were already picking out baby names when she changed her mind. (The woman, Tanya Meyers, has accused him of abuse.)

Few studies have looked at the male partners of women who have abortions. The 1984 book ''Men and Abortion: Lessons, Losses, and Love,'' by Drexel University sociologist Arthur Shostak and journalist Gary McLouth, reports that the decision to end the pregnancy is most often mutual; however, in as many as one in six cases, the man is never told about the pregnancy or the abortion.

Some men who spoke to the Bergen (N.J.) Record a few years ago for an article on the subject keenly felt their powerlessness. One man recalled crying for hours after he accidentally found out about his girlfriend's abortion: ''OK, she was the one carrying it,'' he said, ''but I was never even consulted.''

The flip side of this dilemma is that once conception has occurred, the man cannot escape the burden of unwanted parenthood. There is little sympathy for a man who has a one-night stand and then has to pay for a child he never wanted, even if this has a major impact on his life plans. The typical response is ''you play, you pay,'' an attitude considered callous when advocated by right-to-lifers toward women.

Some activists and legal scholars argue that men should be allowed to legally terminate their paternity within a certain period after conception. But ''choice for men'' is unlikely to catch on. For now, the courts hold biological fathers liable even when the woman lied about birth control, asked the man to impregnate her and agreed in writing not to seek support, or when the father was a teenage victim of statutory rape.

Given biological realities, it may be nearly impossible to come up with a solution that wouldn't be unfair either to men or to women. Legally, it seems to me, there is a compelling argument for at least notifying the prospective father of an abortion (with a waiver for cases of rape or domestic violence) and for allowing men to terminate child support obligations in cases of paternity fraud.

But perhaps what's needed most is not new laws but a new dialogue about reproductive rights and responsibilities. Men have been getting a mixed message about fatherhood: Sometimes they are expected to be full partners in child-rearing; sometimes they are treated as little more than sperm donors, walking cash machines, or bystanders. Some feminists who call for equal parenting also insist on women's absolute reproductive autonomy.

Even men who resent being given so little say in decision-making about a pregnancy generally agree that the woman should have the final word, because it is her body. But if men's parental role is to be taken seriously, women need to assume a moral, if not legal, obligation to involve their partners in such decisions.

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