The Role of Men in the Abortion Debate

Below is a lightly edited version of a paper I wrote for PHIL443, Current Topics in Bioethics at Georgetown University.

Much of the controversy and discussion in the abortion debate is centered around the relationship between the fetus and the mother. Although analyzing the dynamic between the two is a vital aspect of the overall dialogue, an unfortunate consequence of this reality is that the role of the male partner in the abortion debate is all too often overlooked.

The status and relevance of the claims the male partner can make also deserve consideration. I find this question of gender equality intriguing because many men, myself included, often feel as if they do not “deserve” a voice in the abortion debate, as they will never be forced to directly undergo the trials of pregnancy or the heart-wrenching dilemma of whether to abort the fetus. Conversely, other men unequivocally assert their right to determine the future of their unborn child, and recoil at the idea that the decision should be left solely up to the woman. In this essay I will begin with a brief overview of the current male condition when it comes to abortion, and subsequently evaluate both sides’ claims about a chief issue regarding the male role in abortion: whether the father should be able to decide to abort the fetus. Finally, I will provide my own perspective.

First, we must consider the current state of affairs with regard to the rights and responsibilities men have for abortion and child-rearing. This examination will provide vital context for the later arguments I wish to make about the role of men in the abortion debate. In the United States, when a couple has sexual relations resulting in pregnancy, there are a number of options available to the woman regarding how to proceed. She can carry the child to term and keep it, she can give the child up for adoption, or she can abort the pregnancy. The father’s rights are drastically more limited: although he has equal standing in terms of custody of the child once it is born, he has no legal rights whatsoever if the mother decides to abort the child. At first glance, this dynamic seems unequal: the legal rights of the father are drastically reduced in comparison to the mother until the child is actually born, despite them both having equal status as parents. I will explore this possible inequity of rights later when evaluating whether the father deserves a say as to whether the child should be aborted. 

I will now assess a a chief issue regarding the male role in abortion: does the father has a right to choose to abort the child, or is the decision solely up to the mother? This question is complex and highly polarized. Perhaps the most simplistic view of the matter is that the mother and the father conceived of the child in a collaborative manner, and if they are both expected to care for the child once it is born, they both deserve a say as to whether it should be terminated. Proponents of the notion that the father should at least be able to provide some input regarding the fetus’ potential termination is that he, too, has a vested interest in keeping it or killing it. Although the mother must be the one to carry the baby to term, his interests must also be respected and valued to a proportional extent. 

Some arguments in favor of the mother’s right to abort are extensible to the father as well, while others are not applicable. In the Moral Permissibility of Abortion, Little raises what I believe to be one of the strongest arguments in favor of permitting most abortions: the intimacy of pregnancy and motherhood. She references various reasons that provide a strong justification for abortion, and that go beyond whether a fetus is or is not a person and delve into the risks of motherhood as a whole. Little first highlights some considerations that are highly relevant to the mother’s justification for abortion (such as social and health risks), but are not extensible to the father—he faces no apparent health risks if the mother elects to carry the baby to term.

However, she then explains how a common reason for women to abort is that motherhood thoroughly changes one’s core identity: one’s commitments, goals, and overall emotional state are radically altered as a result of becoming a mother. The same can be said for a potential father: just as the mother will experience a dramatic shift in who she is perceived to be, the father will as well—he may begin to measure his successes in life through his child, he will view himself not as an independent individual but as a caregiver, and his overall existence will change. It seems unfair to give standing to the mother’s shift in identity, but to discard that of the father when they are so similar.

Although the emotional and identity shifts the male partner will experience deserve consideration, we must also note the disparity in terms of what each partner must sacrifice physically in order to bring the child to term. As stated previously, there is no danger to the male’s health if the child is not aborted; he faces no physical changes or penalties as a result of keeping the child. The same cannot be said for the mother: in addition to her identity changing, she must share her body, which is an extremely intimate act.

In A Defense of Abortion, Thompson illustrates her claims via an infamous thought experiment where one is kidnapped and used as life support for a famous violinist. The “Violinist Example” attempts to highlight the difference between a right to life and a right to resources needed to maintain that life, as in Thompson’s view although the violinist certainly does not deserve to die, the kidnapped person is not under a moral obligation to sacrifice their body and their freedom in order to keep them alive.

If we extend Thompson’s thought experiment to now include the father as well as the mother, the father’s role in the situation would be one of relative freedom as compared to the mother. If we consider the kidnapped person to be the mother in the example, he would still need to care for her, perhaps bringing her nourishment and supporting her throughout the duration of her connection to the violinist. However, he would be generally free to live his life as normal, he would experience no restrictions of bodily movement or health risks, and as a whole he would be under a drastically different set of obligations as compared to the mother.

Arguably, there are some issues in Thompson’s thought experiment that make this a somewhat lacking example: the scenario fails to consider the post-birth ramifications of the child, and instead only restricts the mother for the duration of the pregnancy—in the scenario she is free to live her life once disconnected. However, I think this example is useful as a way to illustrate the disparity between the expectations of the mother as opposed to the father, and provides a substantive argument for allowing the woman to choose as to whether to abort the fetus.

Little also raises an important consideration about the responsibilities of the mother and father: the “norms of responsible creation” and the necessity for respecting creation itself. She notes how sometimes the decision to abort stems from a perceived obligation to act in the child’s best interest, even if that is at odds with the parent’s own wants and needs.

In some cases, the woman chooses to abort despite desperately wanting the child, but accepting the fact that she cannot give the child the life it so desperately deserves. Bringing a child into the world who is not wholly loved and cared for is in their eyes more wrong than not bringing it into the world at all. If we give credence to this idea, then we must consider extending it to the male partner as well. If the father believes it would be irresponsible on his part to become a father, and he does not want to bring a child into the world that he cannot fully love and care for, then it seems reasonable to allow him to advocate for abortion or adoption as a result.

If we recognize the mother’s right to “responsibly create”, I see little reason why we should not recognize the father’s right as well. However, this situation is complexified by the possibility that the mother will want to keep the child, and feels that she will be able to give it proper support and care, but the father does not. Although they both have a right to responsibly procreate, does the father’s right to not irresponsibly procreate outweigh the mother’s right to responsibly do so? 

This dilemma is very difficult, and introduces the earlier concerns I referenced regarding the considerations we must provide to the father, but also the greater physical burden of the mother’s condition. It seems unfair to argue that if one individual in the relationship refuses to care for the child and wishes to abort, then the other is bound to that decision, but it also feels wrong to force a parent into a role they do not wish to be in.

Furthermore, if a parent was indeed forced to care for the child despite wishing to abort (a situation many male partners experience today, as they have few legal rights whatsoever in terms of electing to abort), there is also the issue of the emotional damage that will ensue between the parent and child—not to mention between the parents themselves.

It seems that in order to come to an equitable outcome that weighs the needs and rights of all involved, this needs to be a collective endeavor on behalf of both parents. We need to value the opinions of both individuals, but also give weight to the increased burden on the mother to carry the child to term.

As such, the ideal resolution to this issue is one where the pair makes a collective decision after consulting medical and relationship experts, but the decision is ultimately up to the mother as to whether to proceed with the pregnancy. This resolution gives preference to the mother in terms of making the decision, but also provides some weight to the father’s opinion and attempts to find common ground between both sides.

Overall, the rights and experiences of the male partner in the abortion debate are all too often overlooked and certainly deserve greater scrutiny by the medical and ethical community at large.

I have attempted to weigh the various arguments for both sides regarding the rights of the father in the pregnancy, and ultimately come to the conclusion that the father’s opinion does matter, but due to the greater burden placed upon the mother and the need for decisive action, the mother should ultimately be the one to make the abortion decision. 

Thank you to Maggie Little for reading drafts of this.