From One Trap to Another: Why Conservatives Still Can’t Talk about Women and Abortion

From One Trap to Another: Why Conservatives Still Can’t Talk about Women and Abortion June 3, 2019

A reader recently sent me an USA Today opinion piece by Thomas Wheatley, a writer at the Federalist, titled Want to end abortion? Hold men — fathers of those unplanned children — accountable.

Wheatley’s piece includes this paragraph:

Popular parenting blogger Gabrielle Blair had some interesting ideas in a Twitter thread that went viral, including castrating men who cause unwanted pregnancies. “For those of you who consider abortion to be murder,” she tweeted, “wouldn’t you be on board with having a handful of men castrated, if it prevented 500,000 murders each year?”

The reader who sent me the piece added this commentary:

[Wheatley’s] article came up on Facebook, accompanied by the comment of,  “is it a good idea to castrate men who cause unwanted pregnancies? I can see an argument… and if not, is there ANY way to combat unintended pregnancies the pro-choice crowd would be willing to accept?”

I have feelings about this.

First and foremost, I’m extremely unhappy that there are abortion opponents out there who still don’t understand that abortion rights advocates very much want to combat unintended pregnancies—and who don’t understand that we already have a tried and true way to do just this, if we would only invest in it. It’s called birth control.

Have abortion opponents somehow missed that the number one service Planned Parenthood offers is not abortion, but rather birth control? No one likes unplanned pregnancies. Studies show that increased access to birth control—especially longterm contraceptives that have lower user error—reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies.

I feel like I’ve been shouting this from the rooftops for years. Oh wait—I have been shouting this from the rooftops for years. And it’s not like I’m alone in this! You’d have to have your head buried in the sand to not know that abortion rights activists also want to decrease the number of unplanned pregnancies through better access to effective means of birth control. Has our bubble-like media world gotten that bad?

Maybe it’s an issue of not wanting got know. Abortion opponents are also those most likely to want birth control access restricted, after all. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself who it was who was calling Sandra Fluke a floozy who wanted the government to fund her sex life. It certainly wasn’t abortion rights activists! Conservatives fought tooth and nail to prevent the Affordable Care Act from requiring insurers to cover birth control. Do you remember that? I do!

And yet—somehow—we’ve arrived at a point where there is more discussion of castrating men to prevent abortion than there is of granting every woman of reproductive age free access to the birth control of her choice.

Now, Wheatley’s article wasn’t primarily about castrating men—and that was originally blogger Gabrielle Blair’s idea, not Wheatley’s. But we do need to talk about Wheatley, because I read his whole piece, and it’s bad. Wheatley is pro-life. In his article, he argues that men should be playing a role in ending abortion. How? There’s the rub.

Wheatley’s beef is not with an absent social welfare state or lack of effective birth control access. Indeed, Wheatley doesn’t mention birth control at all, which is odd, given that wearing a condom is probably the number one way men can combat unplanned pregnancies. Instead, Wheatley wants something else entirely:

[A]s a person who is strongly pro-life, I welcome nearly all efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade and eradicate abortion from our country. These legislative initiatives are long overdue, and I remain confident that abortion, much like slavery, will one day be regarded as a terrible blight on our nation’s character.

Yet a comprehensive life-affirming culture demands more than simply abolishing abortion. We must also restore the original support system that made it safe for women to choose life in the first place. In this respect, I’m greatly disappointed by the pro-life movement’s languid approach to emphasizing the other, equally crucial part of the pro-life equation: fatherhood.

Wait. What?

Pray tell, what was this “original support system” that “made it safe for women to choose life”? I’m on the edge of my seat here.

[P]ro-choice advocates lament the lack of support for expectant mothers. They deride the absence of free health care, free child care and compulsory paid maternal leave. They even go so far as to call pro-life advocates hypocrites, saying that if people like myself really cared about sparing the unborn, we’d make it our priority to support women making the journey to motherhood alone.

Their argument is fundamentally correct (although their solutions are gravely harmful). Unwanted pregnancy is not a disease, nor is it remedied by the moral hazard wrought by additional government assistance programs. Restoring fatherhood — nature’s built-in complement to motherhood — is what is needed. And it starts by expecting more, legally and socially, from our men.

Oh boy. So much to unpack.

Why does Wheatley say that unwanted pregnancy “is not a disease”? I have never seen anyone call unwanted pregnancy a disease. Wheatley needs to be direct. Does he mean that unwanted pregnancy is not a bad thing? If so, he should say that outright. And if that is what he means—that unwanted pregnancy is not a bad thing—I’m going to have to very strongly disagree. That’s kind of the definition—unwanted. A woman is pregnant and she does not want to be. That is a bad thing. (Notice that he deliberately used the term “unwanted” rather than “unplanned.”)

Before I get to the next topic—Wheatley’s insistence on making fatherhood, rather than social welfare programs, the solution to the struggles of single mothers—I do want to give a nod to what Wheatley does get right:

When was the last time an absent father faced consequences — be it in the form of physical scarring, loss of career advancement or loss of social status — that matched those of a single mother? When was the last time an absent father had to endure the humiliating and disapproving stares of random passersby, or the hurtful comments of someone who has no idea how hard it is for one person to do a two-person job?

The problem is that Wheatley does not move from this to better mandating and forcing child support payments, which would actually make sense. Instead, he moves from this to criminalizing adultery. Yes, you read that right.

After the above paragraph, Wheatley says first that social norms have to change, and then suggests that we need to do more to encourage marriage and discourage sex before marriage. Then he adds this:

Yet perhaps a change in the law is also warranted — one which strongly deters men from irresponsible sex. Criminalizing adultery is a good place to start, as is punishing men who shirk their fatherly duties.

Popular parenting blogger Gabrielle Blair had some interesting ideas in a Twitter thread that went viral, including castrating men who cause unwanted pregnancies. “For those of you who consider abortion to be murder,” she tweeted, “wouldn’t you be on board with having a handful of men castrated, if it prevented 500,000 murders each year?”

She meant it as hyperbole (I think), but her point is well-taken. If we are indeed facing a crisis of mass murder in our country, isn’t it about time we ensured everyone is pulling their weight to stop it? If we ban abortion under penalty of law and expect women to embrace the extraordinary responsibilities of pregnancy and motherhood, can we not demand the same of our men?

And then … that’s it. That’s the end of his piece.

You want to know the scary part? Wheatley never calls for better enforcing child support, and he never mentions birth control. Do you know what these two things have in common? They help prevent unplanned pregnancies (or help support women through unplanned pregnancies) without seeking to control women. They grant women autonomy. They allow women to make their own choices. And for that reason, conservatives don’t tend to like them.

Conservatives don’t want women to be autonomous. Instead, they want women to get married and stay married, and to not have sex before they’re married. Ultimately, that’s what most people who oppose abortion want—abstinence until marriage, until death do ye part. (They also want women to have babies and focus on being mothers.) Conservatives believe that if people follow this formula, there will be no need for abortion. (This isn’t quite true—according to the Guttmacher Institute, 14% of women who have abortions are married.)

No one ever stops to ask why women who end up being single mothers don’t stay with their partners. Oh certainly, sometimes it’s the men who leave—but what about all the times when it’s not? What about all the times when women get fed up with being treated badly, or abusively? What about all the times when women say “you know what, I matter, and I shouldn’t have to put up with this”? I’ve had friends say that to me—married friends, with children.

At some point I must have become the person friends felt they could come with about this, because I’ve had this conversation more than once in the past few months alone. And yes, I’ve told friends they should leave, because goddamn, no woman should have to be put up with being yelled at, called stupid, taken for granted, and worse.

Wheatley wants men to start taking their fatherly duties seriously. But what about simply treating the women in their lives well? Why does that not merit even a mention? Do you know how many women would settle for just that, fatherly duties be damned? When Wheatley says that we need to change the social norms to elevate marriage, he never, ever suggests that we as a society should first ensure that men are marriageable. And by that I mean decent human beings.

When Wheatley talks about the importance of marriage and fatherhood, I feel trapped—and I have a great marriage! But I know on a fundamental, gut level that no woman should ever be stuck with a man, and that is what Wheatley wants. He doesn’t want women dependent on government programs, remember. He doesn’t want government mandated maternity leave or government funded childcare. Instead, he wants women dependent on their husbands.

The irony?  Wheatley writes that he gets why some people talk about women feeling “trapped” or “forced” into having an abortion, but he somehow doesn’t understand that women have often felt “trapped” in marriages.

What was Wheatley’s language, earlier in his piece? The “original support system” that “made it safe for women to choose life”? It think Wheatley may need to have a lesson in history. Women pushed for no fault divorce for a reason. That pre-1960s period may look rosy to Wheatley, but it wasn’t so very rosy for those who weren’t men. I would far rather know I can depend on a government program and keep my autonomy, than depend on a husband I can’t leave.

Wheatley seems to think he’s woke. He realizes, he says, that women often feel like they have no choice but to have an abortion, because being a single mother is no piece of cake and men are terrible. But his solution is even scarier than the problem he addresses. It’s as though he has responded to protestors dressed as Handmaids of Margaret Atwood fame by taking the conversation one step further down the path to dystopia.

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