The answer is obvious for a gay-prochoice-feminist such as myself. However, it seems like it’s a bit more complicated than that. During last weeks controversial debate in Florida’s house of representatives over a staunch anti-choice ultrasound law, Democratic Representative Janet Long commented to her colleagues to, “Stand down if you don’t have ovaries.” On face, I applaud this comment. I think it’s important to recognize, especially as an arbiter of male-privilege, that women have been marginalized in traditional legal discourse on abortion rights. Not to mention the fact that women are the one’s forced to give birth to an unwanted fetus. However, I find it problematic to assume that men have no responsibility or role in advancing reproductive justice in the United States. Jacob Appel, at The Huffington Post, points to some of the consequences this alienating rhetoric can have for the pro-choice movement.
The underlying premise seems to be that since women are the ones forced to bring unwanted fetuses to term when abortion rights are curtailed, they have a greater stake in the outcome of such debates–and therefore more right to influence policy on the subject. I can sympathize with the frustration that might lead to such an outlook. At the same time, as someone without ovaries who has written and marched for reproductive freedom through my entire professional life, and who has been threatened repeatedly as a result, I fear the ongoing effort to frame the abortion debate primarily in gender terms remains both politically unwise and ethically unsound. Rather than urging men to stand down, abortion-rights advocates should reach out to convince men that they have a deep and equal stake in preserving reproductive choice.
An unfortunate public perception–advanced by the media and abortion opponents, but all too often accepted by feminist organizations–is that abortion rights are inherently and primarily a women’s issue. This is actually a dangerous concession to those who would restrict or criminalize abortion. Any meaningful philosophical or policy debate over abortion should begin with the question: When, if ever, does a fetus acquire enough “personhood” to limit significantly the rights of another human being? For if fetuses did possess the same degree of “personhood” as born people, then no rational thinker would favor abortion rights. Instead, abortion would be akin to a situation in which one of two conjoined twins sought to murder the other in the name of personal freedom.
Regardless of whether or not abortion policies in the United States have ended in favor of women’s choice or conservative anti-choice politics, they have always seemed to come from the position and perspective of white-heterosexual-men. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that men have been the only one’s responsible for progressive pro-choice and/or destructive anti-choice legislation in the United States, but rather, that men have traditionally occupied the social and political positions of power to authorize or limit women’s reproductive choices. For this reason, and others, I find it perfectly understandable that many women have a problem with men dominating the conversation about women’s reproductive choices. Furthermore, I think Long’s intention was more about dismissing the credibility of male anti-choice representatives who think they have the god-given right to limit women’s freedom, as opposed to a rhetorical attempt at alienating pro-choice men.
It’s important to point out this necessary distinction between ‘men participating in the struggle for reproductive justice’, and ‘men trying to make choices for women’. In other words, men certainly have a place in the struggle for the right to choose; however, they have ZERO right to tell women what they can or cannot do with their bodies.
But, regardless of whether or not Long’s comment was true or not, it definitely brings up an issue relevant to contemporary pro-choice activism. As a ‘dude for choice’, I find it difficult sometimes to negotiate space in the movement for reproductive justice. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel welcome. Hell, the feminist pro-choice movement is the one place that I have truly felt accepted for exactly who I am. But, I do think it’s important for us to constantly challenge our preconceived assumptions about who counts in the conversation and what we mean when we assert a stable subject for either Woman or Man.
Believe me, the issue of exclusion goes far beyond whether or not men feel included in pro-choice discourse. I mean, let’s not forget that the pro-choice movement in the United States was born from the interests and location of rich-white-women. Nonetheless, it wasn’t rich-white-women who suddenly became conscious of their insidious racism either. Women of color had to fight for their voices, experiences, and values to be included in the fight for reproductive justice. In fact, that struggle is still happening today.
So, a little note to Jacob Appel and the other pro-choice dudes out there trying to find a place in the conversation: don’t wait around to be included. Stand up, speak out, and be proactively involved in the movement for reproductive justice. I agree with Appel 100% when he argues that reproductive rights are more than just women’s rights. We all have a stake in the struggle for self-determination and choice. Thus, we should all play a role in achieving equality.
In the end, talk is cheap. Women like Janet Long aren’t going to reconsider their feelings about our place in pro-choice discourse until we show them that we aren’t all complacent, apathetic, anti-choice misogynists. And trust me guys, we’ve got a lot of work to do. I’d like to end with a comment from a pro-choice ally and good friend of mine, Zach Freels. “As someone who has white-hetero-sexist privilege, all I can offer is that being an ally means willing to stand with them when they ask you to, and respect their wishes if they don’t want your advice. Overtime, a trusting relationship will develop and space will be created by its manifestation.”
Andrew (AJ) is a vehement progressive, youth activist, and reproductive justice organizer. When he's not busy with the movement, you can usually find him dancing in the club or watching trashy reality tv.