Achieving meaningful gender equality means affording men equal rights and say in cases of unplanned pregnancies, Frances Goldscheider writes.
Margaret Sanger led the early 20th-century movement to make contraception more widely available with the slogan: “Every child a wanted child!” She had seen too much pain and poverty accumulating in families as normal sexual relationships (within marriage) led not only to large families and so many neglected children, but also cost so many women their health and, too often, their lives.
The movement was highly successful; at least in industrialised societies, most women, whether married or unmarried, now have access to safe and effective contraception and the fall-back option of an abortion if contraception fails. But can men also choose to become parents? For them, is every child a wanted child? This is less clear.
In an increasingly gender-equal world, parenthood is one of the great inequalities, and for most of human history, the costs were disproportionately borne by women. We are mammals, so females carry children in their bodies, bear them in pain, and normally feed them afterwards from their breasts and provide them physical and other forms of care for many years.
In most couples, men provide support, food, money, and some respite care for mothers worn out from crying babies, fussy toddlers, defiant children, and the constant burdens of childcare. And in the ideal case, men also want these children, and when they do not, they cooperate in birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancies. So, what is the problem?
For most of history, men could often escape their parental responsibilities. They could leave, and if that wasn’t feasible, could claim that it was not their child, and women were left holding the bag, as it were. This happened all too often in the case of out-of-wedlock parenthood.
But times have changed. Most societies now expect men to pay support for the children they father, usually for the full duration of childhood. With the advent of DNA testing, proof of biological parenthood has become as solid for men as childbirth has always been for women. But men have fewer ways to avoid unwanted parenthood.
The inequalities start with contraception. Women can normally tell when they or their partners are using contraception or perhaps withdrawal. Men have to deal with the possibility that their partner is not telling the truth about her use of contraception. Many forms of contraception are not visible to the male partner: pills, implants, IUDs, even diaphragms are internal to women’s bodies; she can assert she is protected, even if she is not. (She can also claim to be infertile, but of course, men have been known to do so too.)
And of course, if she does become pregnant from their sexual relations, she can get an abortion if she does not want the child. This is a serious gender inequality, and there is no easy way out of it. Should he be able to force her to have an abortion if he does not want the child or force her to have the child he wants but she does not? Our feelings rebel against both options, given that each is a violation of her body and will. But must he become a father against his will?
What I propose is that men should be able to get what I call a ‘financial abortion.’ Women who suspect they might be pregnant and do not want to abort but want financial help to raise the child should register their condition immediately upon confirmation, naming the father (or perhaps, potential fathers). And men who acknowledge their paternity (or if a DNA test confirms it), should have to make an immediate choice: either to accept the responsibilities (and rights) of parenthood or to reject them (in which case she should be able to get support from the state as a single parent).
Ideally, it should never get that far; our brothers and sons should have access to low-cost, reversible contraception just like our sisters and daughters do (ideally more reliable and less unpleasant than condoms).
It is still not symmetrical; men who opt for a ‘financial abortion’ will know that a child of ‘theirs’ is growing up somewhere (much as women who give up a child for adoption have known, with the range of feelings that evokes). But they will not have to become fathers against their will; every child will be a wanted child, both for men and for women.