Frozen embryos open new questions about forced parenthood and whether men, too, might have rights under Roe v. Wade.
Those of us on the Left like to say that we’re all “in it” together: rich, poor; white, brown; queer, straight; old, young; secular, devout; and even other species. In fact, this may be the most fundamental value of movement progressives. To inspire each other and remind ourselves of our ideals, we use terms like Solidarity, Better Together, Every Voice, Win-Win, and El Pueblo Unido. The growing campaign to secure Medicaid coverage for abortion is called “All Above All” to underscore the idea that the full range of family planning options available to advantaged women should be available to everyone.
But does “all” include the half of humanity born without a uterus? Does the Supreme Court’s second trimester logic extend to men, too? New reproductive technologies are forcing us to confront the question.
Women the “Deciders” because of Gestation
Until recently, embryonic human life existed only within the womb of a human woman, but today almost a million frozen embryos exist in cryogenic storage, created in vitro by couples with fertility problems or facing chemotherapy. The existence of these embryos expands our conversation about reproductive rights.
When an embryo has implanted inside a woman, most Americans agree that the decision of whether to carry forward or terminate that pregnancy is hers. In many cases, a couple faced with an unexpected pregnancy chooses together to either terminate the pregnancy or carry it forward. But when they disagree, the decision defaults to the person most affected, the woman. It’s her body, we say. She is the one who must gestate that embryo during nine arduous months, feeding it from her blood and bones and risking long term disability or even death in order to create a new child. Who could possibly have a right to choose that for someone else?
Chosen Lives, Chosen Loves, Flourishing Families
But when advocates like me talk about why abortion is a positive social good, we don’t talk just about the risks and challenges of gestating a fetus. We say that abortion is important for the same reasons that sexual health literacy and contraception are important: because these tools allow women to live the lives of their choosing, form the families of their choosing, and bring children into the world when they are ready to welcome and nurture them.
We say that being able to manage our fertility allows women to finish school. We say it allows us to be better parents, with partners we love when the time is right. We say that when a woman is able to delay or limit childbearing, she and her children are less likely to fall into poverty and get stuck there. All of this is true—empirically so.
But here is something we have been remiss in acknowledging: Being able to govern the timing and circumstances of parenthood is as important for men as it is for women. Men, too, may suffer mental health harms—or the loss of educational, economic, and personal growth opportunities—when parenthood comes before they are ready. They too may find their dreams shattered or find themselves stuck in an unexpected dependency rather than being able to choose a loving parenthood partnership.
So, when an embryo is sitting in a deep freeze and therefore circumstances have taken a woman’s health and bodily autonomy out of the equation, shouldn’t a man have as much right to abort the process as a woman does?
Shouldn’t producing a child require the consent of both parties?
Fetal “Personhood” Groups See Opportunity
This is one argument being raised in the Missouri case of a divorced couple who froze embryos together before their marriage disintegrated. The man is asking that nobody incubate the embryos to create a child without his consent. He wants the right of choice rather than forced parenthood—as most women would.
At present he isn’t asking for the male equivalent of abortion—the right to eject the frozen embryos from their current state of suspended animation in a laboratory freezer. Nonetheless, his ex-wife, a conservative Catholic and an attorney, has called in the legal arm of the Pro-Life movement to argue that the case should be decided on a child welfare basis, claiming that the frozen embryos have rights superseding those of the persons who created them.
Abortion foes see this as an opportunity to advance the idea that a fertilized egg is a person. In other words, they see it as an opportunity to ensconce and extend legal logic that they hope to apply more broadly in debates about the formation of fetal life, including contraception, abortion, cloning, and genetic enhancements.
All Together or Only Underdogs?
Like the Religious Right, those of us who care about voluntary, freely-chosen parenthood have an opportunity to think about how this scenario relates to our broader values and goals and how we plan to defend those values and goals in the long run. But it also puts many progressives and especially feminists like me in an awkward position. It requires us to acknowledge that the reproductive agency of men, like the reproductive agency of women, is a human right and matter of justice. In other words, advancing our values about voluntary and freely chosen reproduction may require us to include, as part of our “all,” people that some feminists see as privileged oppressors.
The Shape of the Future
Cases like this one offer us a glimpse of the future. For example, the Pentagon is piloting a program to freeze sperm and eggs for young service members. But who will have a right to use them if a soldier doesn’t come home or comes home with brain damage that makes informed consent impossible? A husband or wife? How about a bereaved parent who wants a grandchild? As assistive reproductive technologies advance, we will face an increasing number of cases in which the question of voluntary reproduction is divorced from any question of a woman’s body as a human incubator. Reproductive rights and justice advocates will be forced to clarify whether we are advocating the right to freely chosen pregnancy or freely chosen parenthood, because the two have become separable.
For centuries, family formation, sexual intimacy, and parenthood were bound tightly together in the social structure of traditional, patriarchal marriage. Now, increasingly each of these can be chosen independent of the other two. Soon, the same will be true of creating an embryo and incubating a child. Choice has always been about much more than the right to terminate an ill-conceived pregnancy, but now the possibilities are multiplying.
Integrity and Pragmatics
If social and religious conservatives have their way, the rights of embryos will trump the rights of both women and men, but to date our public discourse almost exclusively centers on women. I would argue that reproductive rights and justice advocates ignore half of this equation—the male half—at a cost. At an abstract level, the cost is lost integrity: It is hard to make a powerful argument about universal human rights that leave some people out. At a practical level, it may be impossible to attain a norm of actively and freely chosen parenthood when men lack the ability to manage their fertility.
If we believe that family planning is a universal human right and powerful lever for advancing family wellbeing, then justice demands that men have rights that are equivalent to those of women. Today the top contraceptives for women require no action for years at a time, are easily reversed, and produce a yearly pregnancy rate as low as 1 in 2000. Men are forced to choose between condoms, with a 1 in 6 annual pregnancy rate, and vasectomy, which cannot reliably be reversed. To top this off, neither male method is covered under the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, which is classed as female preventive care.
Whether or not reproductive rights and justice advocates fight for better male-controlled contraceptive technologies, and insurance coverage for existing male methods, and the right of men to decide the fate of frozen embryos formed from their DNA will send a message to the world about whether “all” means all.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
What an interesting consideration. Mulling…
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A conservative Catholic with frozen embryos? Really? How does that happen?
Valerie, As usual I can’t find any flaw in your reasoning. But open Question(s)? Does there remain an at least statistically measurable, greater overall physical risk, to the mother in all stages of production? Does it, or any other factor, empower the father (or his assign) to prevent either an abortion, or regeneration? If the father is deceased? If the mother’s Spouse is deceased? Does the mother’s choice supersede that of the deceased father’s Parent? Don’t know My own answers. The current Era, (measured in Decades as they now appear to be), may not the best in which to advance the following Idea, but a case could/can be advanced that the Female Gender of our species is/are in fact Different, in a preponderance of positive respects, and thus offer said species the highest probability of Survival. (In collective innate values and Wisdom terms.) ??Anyway, Keep up your incredible good work.
Are you really claiming that one sex (females) has more wisdom? That won’t sell to men, just as men claiming more wisdom won’t sell to women. And that is irrespective of what the objective truth might be, if that could even be determined or agreed by both sexes.
Congratulations on noticing that men and women are, in fact, different. Those who pay attention to reality have been noting this fact for… um, ever. Of course, you can only notice this if the female side is viewed as “superior” some way, but even still, it’s a good start.
An honest look at history shows that women are, indeed, much better at “surviving”, while men are much better at “trying to change the world and maybe dying in the attempt”. Note that those changes can be positive or negative – history’s greatest monsters are men… but history’s greatest heroes are men as well. Men aren’t any better or worse than women, really, they just risk more to change the world. As a species, we need “survivors” or we won’t survive, but just “surviving” makes no progress, no improvement.
You want to blame “men” for Hitler, Mao, and Stalin? Fair enough. You like not living in abject poverty in a subsistence farming or hunter/gatherer society? You like cars, the internet, and air conditioning? Thank “men” for that, too.
Hi Valerie — I have scheduled this essay to appear at IEET on February 12 – thanks! Hank
You acknowledge one of the fundamental problems with the feminist movement today (and really, for at leas the last 20+ years) – it claims to be for equality, but is actually amazingly sexist and female supremacist (it’s at least as bad as the PUA community – yes, I mean that to be as bad as it sounds). Even the phrasing you use when you bring up the questions makes that abundantly clear. You appear to actually believe what you claim to believe, so good luck… if you get any significant attention, you will almost certainly be attacked by your (sooner to be former) associates for your Bad Think.
If thoughts like this weren’t so unusual, maybe your movement would make some headway with those who don’t already agree with you. I know that sounds a bit snide, but I really do mean it as a compliment – it’s as refreshing as it is rare.
I love that you write about male reproductive rights (in this post and others) as part and parcel of the feminist conversation about family planning. My boys are babies now, but I know that someday they will be men, and this kind of thing is very much on my mind. It’s quite a thing to contemplate that, as a feminist mother of sons, I owe my boys open and ongoing conversations about consent, emotional intelligence, functional equality/autonomy…AND must somehow introduce the idea that an ill-timed pregnancy may one day make them parents before they’d like to be, or with the wrong partner. I must tell them that, if such a thing should happen, they can’t expect to get a say-so in the matter.
It’s amazing to me that this is not something that parents (or society broadly) seems to call to the attention of young men. Just because men have the biological option to “walk away” from a pregnancy, doesn’t mean that all would choose to do so. Many would want to know their children if they are to be carried to term – even if they would have preferred better timing. This has life-altering effects for men, too – but it seems so seldom that you hear any open conversation to that effect.
I can’t help but think that’s probably a reflection of the widespread anti-choice hijacking of (publicly acknowledged) attitudes about unwanted pregnancy. Ther’s this pervasive mistaken assumption that women contemplating abortion are only only doing so because the man has left them alone with the pregnancy in some important way (functionally, emotionally, financially) – otherwise they’d be OVERJOYED to have the baby. This is of course wrongheaded in so many ways, and posts like this one really help to expand the conversation to its proper breadth.
Thank you, Kelly. I don’t have sons, but boys deserve better options than what we are offering them right now. We teach them to care deeply about their children and then tell them that they should just accept whatever happens. That’s such a painful contradiction.
Just had to give my perspective a bit.
I had an ill-timed pregnancy in my mid-twenties. I have always been pro-choice when it comes to others in society. When it came to my own pregnancy, I felt very emotional about what was inside of me. All I wanted to do was protect, nurture, grow, and care for it. It was a part of my body, a part of me. Meanwhile, My boyfriend threatened, coerced, did all he could to force me to get an abortion In the end, I did, because I was weak and tired of being attacked. He said he would take the baby from me and strip me of parenting rights and raise it in another country. He snidely mocked me every time I referred to it as “mine” while I pleaded with him, as he said it was “his” and thus he had the right to terminate its life.
My question for you ladies is, in this situation, who gets the ultimate say? The baby’s genetics are split 50/50. It is mine as much as his. We are both human and have equal reproductive rights, so is it a forced abortion or forced fatherhood?
Knowing what I know now about forced abortion, I can say that it is the cruelest thing you can do to a woman when it is against her values. I can basely survive in this lifetime with the residual trauma that a decision was made about my body, concerning and affecting my reproductive system, about my child, by a man typing away on his iPhone and dictating invasive medical procedures concerning ME, while never having to feel the PTSD of how painful, how awful, how horrible the abortion procedure was to my body. How I relive it each day- painful memories of bleeding out and feeling like death would be merciful. Of knowing he took away my most personal decision, made me violate my values, left me destitute, kicked out of my community, and living with depression that I will never be reunited with my baby that shared my body for 8 weeks.
When it comes down to the scenario of choosing between coercion of the woman to abort vs ‘fatherhood’ coercion, I ask that you think of the woman. I ask that you think whether it really is morally right to let the man walk away clean, not one bad memory, while the woman will suffer her life by the decision that was made against her. Because when you talk about your sons, about the importance of keeping them from ‘father coercion’, you are in the same breath saying that you are okay with the reproductive and medical coercion of women. And to that end, you have prioritized male freedom from consequences over female suffering.
And if you’d like a bit of advice to your sons, tell them that before they have sex, find out whether the girls they date are ok with having an abortion if they end up with an unwanted pregnancy. If they aren’t, I would tell the girl to run. Because my ex and I had an explosive argument about this topic but it was too late and he said he never would have had sex with me had he known I would not be okay with an abortion. It was too late and someone was about to face coercion. Unluckily, it was me.
TLDR: verify with your sexual partner that your values on abortion/unwanted pregnancy match before you have sex, and you will save countless couples from abortion/parenthood coercion dilemma
Superb article. I have made this point about choosing to become a parent before.
Elsewhere, I rhetorically asked someone: “Would you suggest that women contemplating abortion should instead go the to hospital and ask to be ‘delivered’ at any stage in their pregnancy. After all, if this is a person from conception onwards why should he or she be imprisoned in someone’s womb?”
Sometimes I am tempted to grant personhood to the fetus, and then to demand that such persons be delivered at the request of pregnant women who don’t want any such persons inside of themselves, especially since no ‘person’ is entitled to place others at risk without their consent or inhabit another. Such an approach may have some merit.
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