Of abortion and men

Male opinions on abortion should be grounded in the stories women tell us, not invalid metaphors.

Jason Ketola

Given the political flurry around the issue of abortion in South Dakota and in Supreme Court appointments, I’ve felt more and more pressured to have a clear stance on abortion, something that isn’t especially easy as a man. Some people think men’s opinions on abortion are irrelevant because pregnancy, abortion and womanhood can be experienced only indirectly by men. While true, it’s incumbent upon men to think about abortion because as roughly 50 percent of the electorate, our opinions do matter.

How are men supposed to understand abortion? Typically we try to tell objective stories about the mother and fetus using reasoned metaphors. Those against abortion typically invoke the “person within a person” metaphor, seeing the span between conception and delivery as a time when a person, equal to any of us, except in stature, lives within the mother. Those for abortion rights often invoke the “lump of cells” metaphor, saying that a fetus hardly can be considered equivalent to a person or even a baby; the fetus is mere tissue that at some point becomes a baby.

(Note: I will not use the term pre-born baby in lieu of fetus, a linguistic move that makes about as much sense as calling ourselves “post-born” or “pre-dead.” And, I use fetus where I might also use embryo, a distinction made in the eighth weeks of gestation.)

Which story is most accurate? Without consulting those who actually are or have been pregnant and faced abortion, we men could debate these metaphors for an eternity and could invent infinitely more at that. To develop an understanding grounded in the reality of the situation, I’ve had discussions with a dozen or so women who’ve had abortions, watched documentaries like “The Abortion Diaries” and scanned hundreds of accounts.

When consulting the lived experiences of women, I found some who identified a unique individual within them, others who felt relatively no emotions or connection to their fetus and a majority of women who fell somewhere in between. Similarly, extreme guilt and extreme joy seem like rarities rather than the rule with respect to abortion. Again, the norm seems somewhere in the middle with women commonly feeling relief following abortion but having distressing memories about that time of their lives. After all, abortions usually occur when something has gone wrong. For example, an unplanned pregnancy may have resulted from an unexpected contraceptive failure or from a rape.

I’ve found the prevailing story does not trivialize fetal life and emphasizes the mother-fetus relationship. Only metaphorically can we separate the fetus from the mother’s body, and hence to discuss the fetus as separate from the mother is invalid. As men, this relationship and experience is foreign to us, so unless we arrogantly decide we know better than the women who’ve had these experiences, we need to trust the stories women tell us.

This means our political and legal opinions should be grounded in the stories women tell about pregnancy and abortion and our understandings of women’s lives. Hence, legislation that discusses the fetus as totally distinct from the mother is premised on an invalid metaphor.

Having established a basis for our opinions in women’s stories, we should ask what support and opposition to abortion choice mean for women and their potential children, particularly as women, not men, face pregnancy, any consequences of abortion and the brunt of the consequences of childbirth. If the consequences were more equally shared, we men might demand more say, but in reality the distribution is far from equal.

Questions we should ask in formulating our opinions include: Is it fair for a woman to be forced to carry to term a pregnancy conceived from incest or rape and what will the life of that child be like? Whether it’s fair to force pregnancy on a woman when laws that demand child support are hardly enforced, and whether it’s fair that women should be forced to deliver when a majority of those in poverty are women and children. We should ask whether it’s fair for a woman to be forced to be pregnant and have an unwanted child, remembering that pregnancy and childbirth poses significantly greater health risks for women than medical or surgical abortion. And we should ask whether it’s fair for a child to be put up for adoption in a state like Minnesota where at any given time, 1,500 kids are already up for adoption and where many of these will never see a stable, loving family. On this note, a piece in the April 9 New York Times Magazine about El Salvador titled “Pro-Life Nation” is a must read for anyone wondering what life is like in a country that considers all abortions, no matter what the reason, worthy of felony charges.

If we men choose to support a ban on abortion, we make a claim to know better than all pregnant women what is best for them. We thereby choose to legislate women’s lives and bodies and, in turn, put them up against physical and emotional risks and disempower them further in a society that already is structurally biased against them. This opinion could only be fairly justified by an overwhelming majority of women telling us that fetal life needs special protection at the expense of the women themselves who will face the consequences.

When we as men advocate choice on abortion, we humble ourselves to the fact that our understandings of abortion and pregnancy are limited and we acknowledge that in the difficult situation in which an abortion is faced and in which a woman will face the consequences, she should be the one making the choice.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]