Let’s also talk about forced motherhood

While we’re having the interesting conversation about (largely hypothetical, given our current social context) issues of ‘forced fatherhood’, it’s also worth having a conversation about forced motherhood. Forced motherhood is, sadly, something that happens all the time, often with severe consequences that extend far beyond economic burdens.

The NY Times magazine has a compelling, heartbreaking article looking at recent work on the effects – psychological, social, financial – of denying abortion to women. Prof. Diana Greene Foster has conducted a landmark study seeking to gauge the impact of preventing access to abortion:

Most studies on the effects of abortion compare women who have abortions with those who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. It is like comparing people who are divorced with people who stay married, instead of people who get the divorce they want with the people who don’t. Foster saw this as a fundamental flaw. By choosing the right comparison groups — women who obtain abortions just before the gestational deadline versus women who miss that deadline and are turned away — Foster hoped to paint a more accurate picture. Do the physical, psychological and socioeconomic outcomes for these two groups of women differ? Which is safer for them, abortion or childbirth? Which causes more depression and anxiety? “I tried to measure all the ways in which I thought having a baby might make you worse off,” Foster says, “and the ways in which having a baby might make you better off, and the same with having an abortion.”

As you might expect, the results aren’t pretty.

7 thoughts on “Let’s also talk about forced motherhood

  1. Do you really think it’s largely hypothetical? What about all the men paying child support that they’d prefer not to pay, for children they would have preferred not to have? I’m not sure why they only count as hypothetical. For the record, I disagree with Schrage. I think they have a moral obligation to care for those children, even if they don’t want to, and I don’t even think paying child support satisfies that obligation. But it’s certainly not a hypothetical question given the large numbers of men who think they can have sex as much as they want without consequences and then end up with kids they don’t want, who end up legally obligated to help provide for the children they didn’t want.

    Part of the asymmetry is that women are favored by our judicial system in childcare decisions for a complex set of reasons, perhaps some good and some bad. Part of the asymmetry, however, comes from the availability of abortion for women but not for the men who thus end up fathers, even if they wanted an abortion. That doesn’t mean they should be able to dictate to women to have abortions. I’d hardly support anything like that. But it generates an asymmetry that disfavors men’s ability to have a say in what obligations they might incur.

    I don’t say any of this to deemphasize the asymmetries there are that disfavor women in sexual relations, but this is one asymmetry that’s fully enshrined into our laws and culture that clearly disfavors men. I think Schrage is right to point it out, and it’s not largely hypothetical. It’s pervasive in the family court system and in many people’s attitudes to those we generally call deadbeat dads. What we should do about it, if anything, is unclear to me, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to act as if it’s not there. That should be among the factors we consider when thinking about social policy and how we should seek to change our culture, even if we ultimately decide other factors are more decisive that point in other directions.

  2. Yes, Jeremy, I do think that the conversations related to Schrage’s piece are largely hypothetical, given contemporary cultural context. As Stoat points out, Schrage is concerned with the issue of “whether (in limited contexts, namely, those in which women can in fact [unrestrictedly] access contraception and abortion services) women’s reproductive autonomy is unfairly greater than that of men”. The unfortunate truth is that many – perhaps most – women’s reproductive choices don’t take place in such a context (whether because they can’t access abortions, they can’t get affordable birth control, they haven’t been given reliable information about family planning, etc).

  3. I agree, magicaltersatz, that the conditions highlighted by Schrage – unrestricted access to contraception and abortion services – are rarely met. But doesn’t that seem to be a red herring, at least in light of the comments on this thread and the other? The real question seems to be (something like) whether or not men should have a defeasible right to reproductive autonomy that currently does not seem to be recognized in the American legal system. Restricting our thoughts to cases where the right is most likely to come into play seems more like a useful heuristic than anything else. At least, that’s how I read the conversation so far – perhaps I’m just mistaken!

  4. No, it doesn’t seem like a red herring. The question of whether they should have a defeasible right is perhaps not largely hypothetical (insofar as ‘defeasible rights’ can be discussed non-hypothetically). But the question of whether they do in fact have such a (non-outweighed, non-defeated) right in ordinary circumstances is what’s largely hypothetical – since I take it that we’re in circumstances such that (according to Schrage, anyway) such a defeasible right is outweighed.

    Anyway – this is the last comment on Schrage’s article/male reproductive rights I’ll allow on this thread. The purpose of this thread is to direct some attention on forced motherhood, in the wake of so much attention on forced fatherhood. So I’m not going to let this thread be taken over by comments about forced fatherhood.

  5. The NY Times story is very heartbreaking. In addition to showing the limits to womens’ reproductive autonomy, it also sheds doubt on the extent to which the government (in the U.S.) is even prepared to form policy in a manner that’s fair and to the public benefit.

    Reproductive policy in the U.S. is mean-spirited. It’s designed to systematically limit womens’ options in every way that’s legally (i.e., as defined by the SCOTUS) allowed. The trouble with any policy change that carries the *potential* to harm mothers is that there’s a group of politicians in the U.S. (almost all Republicans, a not insubstantial number of Democrats) who are going to do everything in their power to make sure it does harm mothers. That fact must guide policy recommendations.

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