Total Pageviews

Monday, February 24, 2014

Re: A Man's Right to Choose

For reasons best known to himself, Bucky decided to bring up this piece from October 2000(!) - and point out that he finds it disingenuous. It's an interesting piece, to be sure (and I'm not sure I find it as disagreeable). It makes an argument that, to me, illustrates how one's perception of the base scenario influences one's judgment of any proposed solution; it also illustrates an important feature of every policy decision.

The premise of this piece appears to be that there ought to be an equality and reciprocity between two decisions (and their consequences), whether taken by men or women: having a child, and not having a child. Instead of this equality, however, the combined effect of abortion, child support and women's empowerment is that men are at a substantial disadvantage.

I have to disagree, though, with the premise itself: I think there is an insurmountable difference between these two decisions, since only one results in the birth of a child. Once the child is born (if not sooner, according to the pro-life people, but that's a debate for another time) then the welfare of the child takes priority over the rights of the parents. Your actions brought another human being in to the world, and you have to take responsibility for that. This is the basis for the "best interest of the child" reasoning applied in divorce and custody cases. It should be evident that no equivalent standard exists for apportioning rights and responsibilities over an unborn child.

More specifically, questions of rights and responsibilities can arise in relation to three decisions: to have sex, to have a child, to raise the child. In the ideal case, both partners agree at each of these stages, and act as per those decisions. Mutual rights and responsibilities coincide with best interest. More generally, whenever both partners agree at *any* of these stages, their mutual rights and responsibilities are not in contest. So there are no problems if both partners decide not to have sex, no problems if they both decide to have sex without conceiving a child, and perhaps only moral objections if they both decide to have sex and abort in the event of pregnancy, or if they both decide to have sex, conceive and bring a child into the world, then give it up for adoption.

In other words, it is only when the partners disagree on a particular decision that we have start asking who has what right and what responsibility. With divorce and child support legislation / jurisprudence, we have a sense for what happens when one of the partners changes their mind on raising the child together. Rights and responsibilities are regulated per whatever is in the best interest of the child. (So either partner still has the right to change their mind and walk out of the relationship, but they have a responsibility to provide suitably for the child to the best of their abilities.)

The article, however, is concerned with the specific question of men's rights in the decision of abortion. If a couple decide to have sex, and to have a child, but then one partner changes their mind, it's hard to make a case that the other partner has no right but to accept that decision. But then, what responsibilities attach to such a decision? It's far easier to quantify the responsibilities of a father to support the rearing of a child he wanted to have, then decided against, precisely because they are framed as a responsibility to the child, not to the mother. If a mother who wanted to have a child changes her mind and gets an abortion, then who is she responsible to, and for what?

It is illustrative, in trying to resolve this question, to look at the third instance of disagreement: where one of the partners did not consent to have sex (or in some of the more unusual cases, consented to have sex with contraception, but was misled by the other partner who somehow rendered the contraception ineffective). There is little doubt that nobody, man or woman, bears a responsibility for a child conceived through sex to which they did not consent. The woman has a right to choose whether or not to abort such a pregnancy, as also to decide whether or not to raise the child if she chooses not to abort; the man cannot insist on an abortion, but certainly has no responsibilities to either mother or child (if born) - one may even say he has the right to deny paternity of a child conceived against his consent. It becomes clear that there is an act of legal fiction involved, which equates the sociological fact of paternity with the biological fact of maternity (/pregnancy): a man can exercise or withhold only the former, a woman only the latter.

At no point has this analysis looked at the rights or responsibilities of the parties vis-a-vis each other. Whatever physical, mental or emotional benefit or distress is visited on either side is material, certainly, but secondary to the question of the child's welfare. Again, laws pertaining to divorce have evolved to take these considerations into account at the level of the third decision (whether or not to stay together, even with no children to account for); laws pertaining to rape have evolved to do so at the first level of consent to sex. At the intermediate stage - consensual sex but disagreement over bearing the child - the law remains uncertain.

Conceptually, the solution would be something along the lines of recognising pregnancy as a form of agency, a shared decision in which both partners have a stake, and to use that stake (howsoever defined) to apportion their rights and responsibilities if they change their minds after the fact. That determination could then be suitably adjusted to take into account what benefit or distress either partner has incurred in the relationship, including as a result of a decision to abort. I say conceptually, because this is precisely where one's initial perspective comes into play.

If the premise one starts with (as I suspect Bucky does, and many of those quoted in the article do not) is that women's rights have been historically denied and suppressed, and that it is dangerous to compromise a woman's agency - especially over her own body and biological processes within it - to any extent, then any such suggestion is definitely a non-starter. It becomes an excuse for patriarchal structures (which are, undoubtedly, entrenched in every profession, including the judiciary) to dictate what women can or cannot do with their bodies. And it is no argument to say that they can make the choice, but must accept the consequences, if those consequences are severe enough to render that freedom of choice illusory.

Conversely, if one starts with the view that the pendulum has swung too far and it is now men's rights that are being impinged - in the name of gender equality and justice, because irony has a gravitational pull of its own - then one is prone to find the current position also an instance of the same phenomenon. This is certainly true of the many men's rights advocates quoted in the article. Unfortunately, historical evidence tends to be against them, and the theoretical validity of their arguments tends to fall apart when placed in that historical context. (Which is much the same as to say, in the end, that I start with the same premise as Bucky does.)

This brings us to the key feature of policy decisions I mentioned at the outset: any such decision will always do harm to some person or group of persons somewhere. A decision is thus to be evaluated based on whether it does the least harm to achieve the greatest gain - in this case, denying men the complete and effective exercise of the right to accept, withhold or revoke paternity, to ensure women retain ultimate agency over their bodies and reproductive processes. A rights-based approach to understanding such decisions is clearly inadequate, because it is premised on the unrealistic insistence that no one's rights are to be violated under any circumstances. A pragmatic evaluation is based on instrumentalist ethics, not deontological ones.

So the nuanced answer is: no, the piece is not disingenuous. It's actually a rational, defensible and internally consistent argument articulated quite lucidly - but it is developed in abstraction from the broader context, cherry-picking the instances it considers without reference to the frequency of their occurrence in the population of interest, and indeed without even clearly defining what that population is or should be. Consequently, it makes for an excellent thought experiment, but it does little to affect the final determination. At best, it makes a case for permitting greater judicial discretion in how to decide such cases.

No comments:

Post a Comment