Back up of the digital mat and jabbing: Liberal Street Fighter

Once, a few years ago, I was waiting to pay at a small little market near my old apartment. In front of me there was a guy paying, and then behind him a woman with two young boys. One about four, the older one about seven. This was a small market, and they were pushing and shoving and play fighting, oblivious to the world around them. A stockboy came in with a teetering stack of boxes on a two-wheeled cart, his arms shaking with the strain as he tried to ease past the two boys without hitting them. His mother paid no attention to the man’s plight, so I finally said, rather sharply, “boys, could you step aside so this man can do his job?”

The two boys reacted with shock … plainly no one had ever repremanded them, or deigned to instruct them that it is important to be polite and heedful of those around you. The stockboy looked at me gratefully as he rushed by, eager to drop his load in back, but the mother WAS NOT as appreciative. In fact, I got an earful about how I had no right to tell her little beasts to behave around others (I replied rather bluntly that SOMEBODY should).

In any event, for some reason I was reminded of this little conflict when I read A Man’s Right to Choose in the New York Times. Especially this:

The bottom line is that if we want to make fathers relevant, they need rights, too. If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create.

In other words, it’s all about US.

Too much of a leap? Well, so much of the debate about abortion, when men are involved, ends up in a plaintive “what about MY rights?”.

The narcissism so often on display in us men is instilled in us in many ways. We’re told we can grow up to be whatever we want to be. Many boys are deferred to in homes, especially an eldest son, and our every accomplishment is celebrated. Yes, I know this isn’t ALWAYS true, but compare it to the types of encouragement girls get, and one can see why so many boys act like the two I encountered in that market.

One of the reasons why initially pursuing the opposite sex is so stressful is that it is one of the first times in our lives where we have to hold ourselves out for approval, with the very real possibility of rejection. No safety net. It’s terrifying, especially when the hormonal stew of testosterone has completely highjacked our every waking thought.

What does this have to do with abortion? Bear with me. When we do share our affections with a woman, we try very hard to put out of our minds that we’ve just put our future at risk. No, I don’t mean this in the sex=death way of the right, or sex=sin, but rather that we can be held responsible if a child results. We joke about shotgun weddings, but it’s a whistling past the graveyard kind of joking when her period is kind of late. If she IS pregnant, far too many of us think:

About a decade ago, my girlfriend became pregnant. It wasn’t planned, but it wasn’t exactly unplanned either, in that we obviously knew how biology worked. I desperately wanted to keep the baby, but she wasn’t ready, and there were some minor medical concerns about the fetus, so she decided to terminate the pregnancy against my wishes. What right did I have to stop her? As it turned out, none. It was, indeed, a woman’s right to choose.

Not surprisingly, we broke up. And my desire for fatherhood was eventually fulfilled by two wonderful children. But every so often I think back to the fateful decision, and frustration boils up. I am particularly reminded of it now, as I counsel a friend who finds himself in a parallel – but reverse – situation: when he broke off his engagement, his girlfriend told him that she was pregnant and was going to have the child no matter what.

That is her right, of course, and nobody should be able to take that away. But when men and women engage in sexual relations both parties recognize the potential for creating life. If both parties willingly participate then shouldn’t both have a say in whether to keep a baby that results?

As little princes of our own little universes, there is an undeniable logic to those statements. It makes some sense to us that we still have a choice:

Today we can know who the real father is, thanks to DNA testing. This means that society can hold fathers responsible for the children they sire.

And this is exactly what is happening. A recent focus of social policy in general and welfare reform in particular has been responsible fatherhood. Efforts to collect child support from deadbeat dads have increased. So have efforts to bring those fathers within the sphere of their families.

NOBODY is arguing that we should let my friend who impregnated his girlfriend off the hook. If you play, you must pay. But if you pay, you should get some say. If a father is willing to legally commit to supporting and raising the child himself, why should a woman be able to end a pregnancy that she knew was a possibility of consensual sex? Why couldn’t I make the same claim – that I am going to keep the baby regardless of whether she wants it or not?

Well, you might argue that all the man provides is his seed in a moment of pleasure. The real work consists of carrying a child for nine months, with the attendant morning sickness, leg cramps, biological risks and so on.

But how many times have we heard that fatherhood is not about a moment, it is about being there for the lifetime of a child? If we extend that logic, those 40 weeks of pregnancy – as intense as they may be – are merely a small fraction of a lifetime commitment to that child.

Except, we DON’T still have a choice. We made our choice when we had sex, and it is a more profound choice that a “moment of pleasure”. That we often treat it as just that is a fault in us. We have surrendered our future to the choices of another person, if we wanted to be truly honest about it, the way women have been forced by custom, dogma, law and … well … physical force, to submit their futures to the vagaries of others for most of recorded history. We have chosen to be cast along by forces beyond our control. This terrifies men who were raised to believe that they could have the world when they were boys. When you get right down to it, men are bigger romantics that we like to admit. We LIKED be little princes, and we hope to grow up to be Prince Charming, completely in control of when we find the girl of our dreams, a girl who is saved by us and made our bride.

That is the crux of the problem men have with this entire question, if you’ll allow my broad brush and facile pop psychology. What about MY choice?

You made it bub, so be a man and live with the consequences.

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