By Valerie Tarico | 19 March 2023
I’m a feminist, a former Evangelical who writes fiercely about how Christianity drags Bronze Age patriarchy into the present. The top issue to which I devote my time, money and energy is reproductive health and rights. My all-time most read article was titled, “Why I am Pro Abortion, not Just Pro Choice.” But I also think that men deserve to have their own thoughts and feelings about abortion, and to express them. Telling men, “If you don’t have a uterus, shut up.” runs counter to the best of who we are as human beings.
— Robin Smith (@RobinSmithAK) August 25, 2023
To be clear, a woman’s capacity to get pregnant and incubate a budding human life means that women collectively have something at stake in this conversation that men do not. Our reproductive capacity shapes our bodies and lives in countless ways—including that we risk health and life to bear children, but the ripple effects are much broader than that. Our career paths are more disrupted, we store body fat where men have extra muscle leaving us vulnerable to forced sex, and for millennia, women were reproductive chattel, economic assets belonging to fathers and husbands. This is why, when there is disagreement, decisions about abortion should default to the woman as the person most affected. But while all of that is key to why women must speak up in this matter, it doesn’t imply the converse: that men should not.
"On the surface, valuing embryonic life and abusing children are at odds, but with a biblical view of childhood, these positions can go hand in hand."
Children as Chattel–The Common Root of Religious Child Abuse and the Pro-Life Movement https://t.co/crTEDVlrnE
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) September 5, 2023
Perspective-taking and Empathy
One of the most fundamental aspects of human cognition is perspective-taking, meaning the ability to imagine what another person might be thinking or feeling—to see the world from their perspective. This happens in a minute way every time we engage in conversation or even notice another person. Without it, movies and novels would be impossible. Some other animals can do perspective-taking to a limited degree, but as far as researchers can tell, we are the only ones who can, for example, ask ourselves What might Andy think I think of him? or What is John’s opinion about what Sue suspects are Peter’s motives?” Layers of perspective-taking like this require that we hold mental representations of other minds inside our own.
Because we are social animals, our emotional makeup has been designed by nature to complement this cognitive capacity. We don’t just observe other people’s feelings, we feel them; and people who can’t are scary as hell. Specialized neurons called mirror neurons help to make this possible.
From Ability to Responsibility
The neurobiology of perspective-taking and empathy has led humanity, over time, to develop moral and ethical agreements that further help us to live in community with each other. How should we treat other people and other sentient beings? When we ask this question, perspective-taking shapes empathy, which provides the seeds of compassion, which can be thought of as empathic action. Not all ethical systems hold up compassion as the highest value like Buddhism does, but compassion is fundamental across both religious wisdom traditions and secular ethics. It is often articulated as some form of the familiar Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The Golden Rule asks us to assume that others have feelings and desires that are similar to our own, to imagine what that might be like for them, and to act accordingly. The Platinum Rule—Do unto others as they would have you do unto them—asks us to step even further into the mind of the other; to consider that someone else’s desires might not be the same as ours under a given set of circumstances. Each of these treats the human capacity for empathy and perspective-taking as core to who we are.
Back to Abortion
Since both men and women are wired for perspective-taking and empathy and since both men and women have the ability to wrestle with moral questions about the wellbeing of others who aren’t like us, here is my controversial take: To the degree that abortion affects any sentient other, including the budding sentience of a developing fetus, men have some responsibility to interrogate and, where fitting, express their thoughts and feelings about it. That applies to abortion access broadly and individual abortion decisions.
Every day across America conservatives are creating new laws to go after abortion funds, organizations and anyone giving aid to a woman to wanting to exercise her right to healthcare.
Now, MAGA conservatives and fake Christians have a new term and new idea for stopping women… pic.twitter.com/2wRXep4MBK
— Feisty is proud to be a Democrat! (@FeistyLibLady) September 1, 2023
If you find yourself balking, ask the following questions: Should Americans have thoughts and feelings about a war that Russians have inflicted on Ukrainians when we are neither? Should humans have opinions and feelings about the lived experience of farm animals? Should we have an opinion about whether wild animals in a drought-stricken desert should be fenced off from water that they can smell but not reach? At some point should we begin trying to imagine the lived experience of an as-yet-fictional AI or alien? Most people would say yes, and some might add that we have a particular responsibility to speak for those who have no voice. (Count me among them.)
I fail to see how we can deny the validity of male voices in abortion conversations without broadly trashing the human capacity for perspective-taking and empathy and wrestling with moral questions. We can and do ask men to act as allies to women. But consider allyship in even the thinnest sense of the word, not the kind that means partnership in mutual goals or against a common enemy but the kind that says we should use our position to channel someone else on their issue (in other words, the kind of allyship that many feminists have asked of men in the fight for reproductive rights). Even in this scenario, the ally must use their own thoughts and feelings, and apply their own values, to decide whether and where they will lend a voice. Delegitimize male thoughts, feelings and values, and you delegitimize allyship.
So, it is not coherent to exclude men from conversations about abortion, even if we disagree with what some might have to say. That said, we can ask that men listen. We can ask that men not dominate conversations or force their personal priorities on others. We can ask men to stand with those who are likely to be harmed more by loss of abortion access. We can ask men to accept that, because only females get pregnant, they cannot have the final word on this–not at a policy level, not at a personal level, no matter how passionate they may feel.
No woman should have to wait until they're “sick enough” to receive care.
A majority of Hoosiers know we need to listen to medical professionals and keep big government out of the doctor’s office.https://t.co/poOgxojsOt
— Indiana Democratic Party (@INDems) September 5, 2023
Ultimately though, rather than silencing male voices, we must rely on the courage of our conviction that abortion care is a moral good and a human right. We must be willing to wrestle with the uncomfortable need to draw binary yes-no lines across the continuum of development that leads from fertilized eggs to children; and we must emphatically demand full personhood rights for females. Men as well as women are capable of engaging on each of these.
Seeing Men as People
There is another way in which empathy and perspective-taking come into play around abortion. This has to do with the capacity of women to fully engage our own moral emotions and reasoning. When we females look at men through the lens of our own empathy and perspective-taking, we see that they are not merely potential allies here. They are not Americans looking in on a war in Eastern Europe or humans considering the plight of caged chickens—though I don’t mean to trivialize either. Rather, they are themselves profoundly affected by abortion rights and decisions. For women who have birthed and raised a child, the nine months in which they gestated and then delivered an infant were just the beginnings of a multi-decade commitment that radically altered the shape of their lives (and bodies). I once told my friend John that our young children were the both the best and worst things in my life. He laughed—until he had kids of his own.
My point is this. Most of the hardships and joys of parenthood, the sacrifices and delights and shifting pattern of hopes and fears, the unpredictable toggles between weary exasperation and sheer bliss fall on men as well as women. Yes, women have been primary caretakers for centuries and across continents, emphatically yes. But the lives of men, too, are profoundly affected by whether women can freely decide to carry forward pregnancy or not. A young man can have his dreams about school or career or future family utterly derailed by a surprise pregnancy when abortion isn’t an option. Conversely, a man who dreams of being a father may experience a genuine sense of loss and grief when a woman decides to end a pregnancy, even if he agrees but especially if he doesn’t. Research suggests that many men who feel conflicted set aside those feelings in support of a partner. But that doesn’t mean the only way to deal with those feelings is to bury them.
These are not trivial considerations that can be brushed aside by, “Do you have a uterus? No? Then zip it.” For individuals, that stance can create subterranean currents that people may have no healthy place to channel. At a societal level, I think, this kind of position undermines the struggle for inclusive human rights—which is ultimately grounded in our shared humanity.
Shaming and silencing people we don’t agree with or those we designate as “other” based on some accident of birth—that is the norm of human history. Claiming that men have no place in conversations about abortion covers this ancient script with a modern gloss but fails to fundamentally change it. Even if our intentions are good, even if the wild frustration felt by so many women is valid and is the product of sexism that can be traced clear back into the Bronze Age (or into the fog of prehistory), we can do better.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
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.
Valerie Tarico: Trusting Doubt
Roe v Wade reversal: How abortion restrictions are impacting the US one year on – BBC Newsnight
The state of abortion access in America a year after Roe’s reversal
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