“If men could get pregnant…”

It seems like two reliable ways to start a fight on the Internet, even if you honestly don’t mean to, is to suggest that the Second Amendment could use some tweaking in the presence of strong supporters of gun ownership, and to question any significant element of pro-choice rhetoric in the presence of feminists. Sure, many people in each group will let us pass or react in a reasonable manner, but others will seemingly shut down their ability to read what’s being written.

As the subject line should suggest, I did the latter recently. In discussing the recently passed House bill which would greatly reduce women’s access not just to abortion but to female-specific health services in general, I took umbrage with the claim that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be legal.

I want to say the following as clearly as possible from the get-go: If I were in charge, abortion would be 100% legal, on demand, with taxpayer subsidies when needed. If I were in charge, health care would be socialized, so “when needed” would mean “always.” I cannot pretend to be a woman, I cannot pretend to know what it’s like to face that decision, but I do know what it’s like to be a child growing up in a household where I didn’t often feel like I was wanted. I would not wish that on any child, and if a pregnant woman is of the opinion that she cannot or does not want to provide that household, either by herself or through custodial release, she should not be forced to. (This is setting aside the whole discussion of abortion in the case of health issues, which obviously should be legal.)

However, I feel that the claim that, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be legal is wrong-minded for several important reasons.

For many people, of both genders, abortion is an issue of body autonomy. For others, though, it’s an issue of the sanctity of life. I do believe that except for a few people on the fringes on both sides, everyone agrees that life should not be ended casually, and that every adult should have no small amount of control over their own bodies. People who waver on the topic of abortion generally waver on how much those two competing notions should be weighted against each other.

In my experience, people who are strongly in favor of abortion freedoms tend to define “human” life in terms of birth, not conception. Yes, a fetus is “alive,” but it’s not really human. This is how I see it, too. This is how our language sees it: When we talk of how long we’ve been alive, we date that from our birthdays. For many of these people, the “sanctity” of “human” life doesn’t come into play on the topic of abortion, because the only human life involved is that of the pregnant woman. For many people, “sanctity” is also an irrelevance, since that implies religious undertones that they don’t accept.

Even so, there are people who can reject the notion that a fetus is human or that life is inherently sanctified who nonetheless feel that abortion is not a light decision. I’ve known several women who have contemplated having an abortion; some decided to, some decided not to. None of them took the decision lightly.

On the other end of the scale, I think that most opponents of abortion as a legal choice do feel that women, as humans, should have some decision making control over their own bodies. Some of these opponents happen to feel that, to put it in religious terms that I myself reject, God’s will is for the human life inside the womb to be born, and it is wrong for anyone (male, female, or other) to act against that will.

Dismissing this sincere and often nuanced position, one that’s held by people of all genders, as mere “woman hating” does not advance the debate, it shuts it down.

A second problem I have with the “if men could get pregnant” rhetoric is that it’s pointlessly divisive (“pointlessly,” as with everything else in this post, being my opinion, not an implied fact). My response to it in the Internet conversation was that all but one of the female Republicans in the House also voted for the bill; the one who didn’t didn’t vote. The response I got back was that these women are kowtowing to the men, they’re unable to stand up for themselves, and so on.

They are, in other words, not “real” women.

And what about all the Democratic men in the House who voted against the Bill?

One recent poll showed a remarkably small difference of opinion between males and females on the issue of whether abortion should be legal. The only possibly significant difference is that women are more likely to want completely unfettered abortion, while men are more likely to want minor limitations. 42% of men think it should be usually or always illegal; 42% of women think it should be usually or always illegal.

“But,” the rebuttal goes, “we live in a society where women have been enculturated to self-loathing and self-limiting. If our children were raised to be more egalitarian, women would be more willing to stand up for themselves.”

I agree. And men would be more willing to see women as autonomous beings instead of objects. More men would favor legalized abortion, more women would favor legalized abortion, more people overall would. More egalitarianism would definitely be a great thing. I’m all for it.

Let’s go back to the original claim, though. “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be legal.” It seems to ignore the fact that abortion is legal, albeit with increasingly inane limitations, and that it’s legal because seven (of nine) men decided it should be legal. It appears to rely on the sexist argument that men are incapable of considering any needs other than their own.

Furthermore, it takes as an inherent implication that men always make the rules, which undermines the putative ideal of egalitarianism. The rhetoric is not, “If women were in charge, abortion would be legal” (I’ve heard that as well, and while some parts of this post apply to that, this particular section doesn’t).

As I pointed out in the other discussion, laws on domestic violence and rape frequently use female nouns and pronouns. This is primarily because victims of those crimes are more often female than male (although the numbers of DV are far less disparate than those on rape), and I believe others took me to be engaging in the standard male whine (which I admittedly did engage in once upon a time) that oh isn’t it so unfair, what about the menfolks? I had a feeling I should have avoided that point entirely because of the likelihood that it would be misunderstood. My point was: If male politicians are simplistically motivated only by what can affect them, then why are they explicitly pointing laws about things that really could happen to them explicitly away from themselves?

A person in the discussion pointed out that having gender-based language in such legislation does a disservice to females as well, and I agreed. The notion is that all women need protecting, and all men don’t. That’s wrong on both counts.

Our culture, and arguably our species, is predisposed to see women as helpless, incapable of rational thought, and needing moral guidance; it’s predisposed to see men as sturdy, infallible, and so forth. The Abrahamic religious traditions, particularly the book of Exodus and certain aspects of Islam, really drive that disparity to its extreme.

The US has made great strides towards egalitarianism even in my own lifetime. The 1970s saw Enjoli being marketed to the “24 hour woman”: A woman who could balance her worklife with being a mother and a lover. In 1980, the Enjoli woman was somewhat left-of-middle, a suburban variation of the woman’s libber. Now the best example of the Enjoli woman is Sarah Palin, decidedly right-of-middle.

But we’ve also got a long way to go. In recent years, it’s felt like we’ve been backsliding. TV ads are consistently sexist, depicting women as housekeepers and men as objectifiers and boors. WalMart’s Super Bowl Party advertising exemplifies both at the same time, marketing to women who need to make sure the parties are properly stocked so they can be heroes to their menfolk. Ick.

Men, women, and people who identify as neither deserve the dignity to be treated as human beings, regardless of whether they choose to be strong or vulnerable, athletic or artistic, parents or childfree, and on and on, and in any combination of those traits.

And that’s what “if men could get pregnant…” does not do. It implies that men are men first, humans second. It undermines a goal of egalitarianism, in my view, by making gendered assumptions about behavior.

That said, there are certain things that can definitely be said about the male identity in American culture. We men have an extremely flawed and damaging way of looking at the world and our place in it. We far too often treat women as objects. Rape is an obscenity beyond all words, and the gender disparity of rape is abominable. I can be overweight and be tsk-tsked at casually; if I were female, I’d be judged on a daily basis. I recently read corporate advice on how women should wear make-up; as a male, I have far more freedom about my appearance (with the minor exception of my attire).

If I were an artist, I would draw an accompany cartoon: A male pointing at a small bump on the ground labelled “male obstacles” while a female stands in front of a towering mound labelled “female obstacles.” Or something along those lines.

I “get” the notion of privilege, as much as it’s possible for anyone who enjoys a privilege to understand the notion (not nearly as much as someone suffers from not enjoying it).

I disagree, though, that divisive rhetoric serves any function other than to further divide.

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