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Their Poor Little Heads might Explode

1 Jun, 14 | by Iain Brassington

There’s a nice little piece by Martin Robbins in this week’s Guardian in which he talks about the fact that women seem to be less supportive of abortion than men.  That does seem counterintuitive, given that… well, given the obvious physiological facts and the relative burden of risks related to pregnancy.  So there’s an interesting little anthropological puzzle here; and he suggests a number of factors that might explain the phenomenon. For example, there’s some research that finds that women are more likely than men to agree that life begins at conception – though, as he points out, while that might help explain the different views of termination, we’d still need to know why more women think that to begin with. Another potential explanation is that men like the idea of not having to do the right thing by their pregnant partners by paying child-support or, if you’re reading this in the 1950s, marrying them: abortion gives a way out of that.  But – and Robbins doesn’t mention this – that again presupposes keeping the baby as the default position to which people are looking for an alternative.  We could also talk about social pressure, and the way that women are still expected to be mothers, and how that feeds into attitudes.  In fact, we could talk about a lot of things:

So which is it? Internalised sexism, men’s liberation, fundamentally different ideas about the point at which life begins, or something else entirely? I doubt only one factor is at work, but it seems that we lack a definitive answer. And that’s a shame, because in the ongoing battle of ideas it seems like a very important question to ask.

I suspect some will deride his “we need to do more research” conclusion, but it seems eminently sensible to say that, faced with a quirk of attitudes, a full explanation would be at least aesthetically satisfying, even if not especially urgent.  He also provides lots of useful links.

Over at the CMF blog, Philippa Taylor’s suggestion – which also has lots of useful links – is a little different.  One aspect of it might have some weight:

Some men can apply (subtle or strong) pressure on their partner to have an abortion as a way of mitigating their own responsibility and to get ‘rid’ of ‘the problem’. (One study found that more than 60% of women felt pressured by others to have an abortion).

That echoes the idea that men see the availability of abortion to their parters as a way to get out of the costs of child-rearing.  But, again, since even in an ideal world women carry more than half the burden of reproduction – even if earnings, household chores, and nappy changes are shared exactly 50/50, it’s still women who do the lactating and the pushing – one might still expect women to be open to the availability of an escape route, too. But where Taylor takes this thought is unintentionally hilarious.

It can equally be argued that the levelling of the sexual playing field in fact places women at a disadvantage; because when contraception fails, abortion is seen as the answer, and responsibility for that is handed over to women. […O]ften a man will simply say to his partner: ‘You choose, it’s your body, your choice’, not wanting to apply pressure and possibly assuming that he is being both helpful and supportive. When the decision is cloaked in terms of choice in this way, many women subconsciously sense that their ability to choose has actually been taken away. They know they now have to take full responsibility themselves for the decision about whether to carry the baby to the abortion clinic or to birth. To choose to carry a baby to birth leaves them with final responsibility for that choice and, therefore, for the child and for raising and supporting the child.

I’m struggling with this.  The subtext seems to be that women are just not all that good with responsibility – or (which is even odder) that women can do responsibility, but, by dint of being women, shouldn’t have to.  For Taylor, a woman who has the final say over what happens with, or to, or in her body has had something “taken away”; and though she doesn’t claim explicitly that the person who gives her that final say is unhelpful, the way that she phrases things suggests that she’s willing to leave that possibility tantalisingly open.  Note, too, that none of this explains why women might be more anti-abortion: faced with the oh-so-terrible prospect of having to take responsibility, wouldn’t we expect even more to look for a get-out?  One might almost think that as well as being anti-abortion, Taylor is also fairly anti-emancipation… But then it gets really strange.  She continues:

Whilst not wanting to over-generalise, we have to consider the possibility that perhaps women are not always making choices that they really want to make, as men absolve themselves of their responsibility in decision- making.  A choice is no choice if there are not equal (supported) alternatives.

OK: so a decision to abort may not be a genuine choice if there isn’t the support for childcare after birth.  Fair enough; but if such care really is so lacking, wouldn’t that give us a reason to suspect that women would be currently more pro-choice than men?  I don’t understand what’s going on here.  Indeed, since Taylor is sympathetic to the idea that abortion is traumatic, doesn’t that give us a reason to provide more and better post-abortion care – which’d presumably make women more pro-choice than they are, since they would have an equal supported alternative to keeping the pregnancy?  It’s strange. But the really strange bit is the bit about men absolving themselves for responsibility.  Why is a decision to abort the man’s responsibility anyway?  I mean, I can well imagine that a couple in a stable relationship would talk about reproductive decisions; and it might be admirable and virtuous and all the rest of it for a woman to take her partner’s feelings into account when it comes to reproductive decisions.  But it’s not his responsibility unless she chooses to share it, and it’s not his right.  If she chooses one way or the other with no consultation with him, that’s just tough.  It’s up to the woman to invite her partner into the process to whatever extent she pleases.  It’s not about men absolving themselves of responsibility; to think otherwise is to grant them a responsibility that isn’t theirs to begin with. Anyway…

So before commentators all too easily accept claims that restricting abortion is a war on women, they should stop to consider whether abortion is really a choice women want to always have to take responsibility for on their own.

Oh, stop it.  This is embarrassing.  If women don’t want to make reproductive decisions on their own, they don’t have to.  They can talk to their partners, their friends, their family, their priest, or the person sitting next to them on the bus.  That’s all fine.  At least the first couple of options on that list are quite possibly admirable.  But what seems to be smuggled in here is the suggestion that there should be someone on hand who’ll swoop in to take the responsibility from women, on their behalf.

As if their poor little heads will explode otherwise.

I don’t think they will.

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  • unity_ministry

    It’s always worth checking the citations on the rare occasions someone at CMF uses them.

    The study that claims to have found that 60% of women felt pressured by others to have an abortion is by Vincent Rue, Priscilla Coleman and David Reardon, so one should expect a hefty dose of researcher bias.

    • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

      Yeah – I’d noticed those names, and my spider-senses were twitching. But a proper account on that front would have taken a lot of extra work and, to be completely frank, the sun was shining.

  • David Hunter

    Let me try a defence of the position (which I’ve heard a number of times from feminist writers) that sometimes being given a choice can be worse than not which the piece you are criticising rests on.

    Suppose abortion represents a tragic dilemma – that is a dilemma where both arms of the dilemma are morally obnoxious – in this case because there is always something regretable about aborting (take your pick for your reason for this) but given the circumstances keeping the child would also be regrettable (because of the impact on your life, or your inability to give the child a satisfactory life or something).

    Where abortions aren’t available then getting pregnant in these circumstances is bad certainly, but at least you have no regrets or concerns that things could have been otherwise since you had no choice. Likewise your social and psychological position is stronger because your circumstances are (now) largely out of your hands.

    However where abortions are available you are now placed in a tragic dilemma where neither option is good, but you must make a choice. Being put into a tragic dilemma is clearly a bad thing that it is better to avoid. And both psychologically and socially making a decision either way even when both are bad feels like you are endorsing that option and thus carry the responsibility for it.

    Now of course for this to work you would need to establish that abortion constitutes a tragic dilemma which I think is harder than it looks, but it seems to me to be the best way of defending that line of reasoning.

    • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

      Hmmm. I think your final paragraph is key here.

      I don’t doubt that some abortions are, or at least could be, tragic dilemma cases; but for Taylor’s point to stand, they’d probably have to be so in at least the majority of cases – and possibly to be so as a matter of necessity. And even then, it wouldn’t really explain the responsibility weirdness…

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