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Alabama Family Rights Association

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A Man's Right to Choose -
By THOMAS LYNCH MILFORD

            I have a daughter and three sons. If there is better duty than being the dad, I have never found it. But on one subject -- the nature of sex and its possible outcomes -- the counsel I'm required to give my sons, if given to my daughter, sounds unfashionably bombastic, politically suspect if not "incorrect," vaguely patriarchal. Oughtn't parenting be gender-neutral?

I'm in favor of life, in favor of choice. Life is not easy. Neither is choice.

My daughter and sons are biologically equipped for reproduction. Here are their choices as I see them. Each can choose whether or not, with whom and where, when and why, to be sexually active. They can choose how much or how little meaning it has, how much or how little of themselves to invest. Each can choose what, if any, precaution to take against an unplanned pregnancy. But should such precautions fail, the available choices take different directions along gender lines.

My daughter may choose to have the baby with or without the consent, cooperation, or co-parenting of the fellow (shall we call him the father now?) who impregnated her. Or she may choose, in light of her life's circumstances, that a child would be terribly inconvenient and she may avail herself of what the courts have declared is her constitutionally guaranteed right to a safe and legal medical procedure that terminates her pregnancy. Whatever discomfort -- moral or personal or maternal -- she might feel, a pregnancy that resulted from bilateral consent is legally undone by unilateral choice.

But if the choice as to when one is ready, willing and able to parent is a good thing, wouldn't it be good for my sons as well? And if that choice may be exercised by women after conception, then shouldn't men have the same option: to proclaim, legally and unilaterally, the end of their interest in the tissue or fetus or baby or whatever it is that sex between a man and a woman sometimes produces?

As it stands now, paternity, once determined, means fiscal responsibility for 18 years -- not by choice, but by law. If they impregnate and the woman chooses to have the child, she has a legal claim against the father's earnings. They may, of course, refuse to pay, refuse their paternity, in which case they are "deadbeat dads" or some other media-made word for no good. Why oughtn't my sons have an equivalent choice -- say, within the first two trimesters -- to declare their decision not to parent, to void their paternity? Isn't this precisely the same choice given to women by Roe v. Wade and laws elsewhere that uphold this "right"?

Still, pregnancy and abortion, some several will argue, are women's issues, a woman's body. "Once men can get pregnant, then you can talk!" I am sometimes told. Is it really all about wombs, then? Is biology destiny, after all?

Is it the species or the gender that reproduces? Aren't pregnancy and parenting human issues? I know they were when my sons and daughter were "expected." Their mother was "expecting"; so was I. And while a woman's body is certainly involved in her maternity, a man's is involved in his paternity. Do we not ask men for 18 years of work and toil, their bodies' "labor," in support of the baby born of their loins? If they refuse, which too many do, we do not call it a privacy issue; we call them scoundrels.

And if I am encouraged to march in favor of a woman's right to choose a safe, legal and affordable medical procedure to abort her maternity, where are the women who will march with me to uphold the rights of my sons and their sons to choose a safe, legal and affordable legal procedure to terminate, for reasons that range from good to not so good, their paternity?

"If they don't want the responsibility, they should keep their pants on!" is what I am told by several women of my acquaintance. Truth told, it sounds like sound advice. But the same advice, tendered to my daughter or to the daughters of my women friends, is regarded as suspect, sexist, patriarchal.

What would it look like if a million men or so, next year, within 12 weeks of impregnating their sexual partners, were to declare, for reasons they had to articulate to no one, their interest in the fetus null and void, ceased and aborted? What if there were clinics, operated by Planned Parenthood or some benign nonprofit, where the paperwork could be cleanly conducted for a reasonable fee -- paper "procedures" performed by lawyers instead of doctors, assisted by paralegals instead of nurses -- the deliverance, safe, legal, unilateral, constitutionally protected, the same for the fathers as for mothers?

Would protesters march in front of such clinics? Would signs appear calling them unflattering names? Would pictures of destitute children and abandoned mothers punctuate these protests? The politics of reproduction involves not only our public interests, but our private ones. And in the longstanding debates, the terrible din of public rhetoric between politicos and archbishops has obscured the talk between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives.

Women are right to abhor decisions about their bodies that leave them out. So are men. The reproductive life of the species is not a woman's issue. It is a human one. It requires the voices of human beings. And the language it deserves is intimate.

Thomas Lynch is the author of "The Undertaking" and "Bodies in Motion and at Rest."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company


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