Women's Choice & Fatherhood: Two Concepts That Cannot Co-Exist

Author: Michael Peters

WOMEN'S CHOICE AND FATHERHOOD: TWO CONCEPTS THAT CANNOT CO-EXIST by Michael Peters People nowadays blithely toss off the term 'woman's choice' as if it were a badge of modernity. It has a grand, progressive and, of course, liberated sound to it in this, our triumphant age of consumer availabilities. It flows with our cornucopia of selections between silver mini-vans and red convertibles, emeralds and zirconiums, suburban townhouses and downtown condominiums, filet mignons and Rock lobsters. Whatever choice you want, it is unquestioningly accepted that you have an inalienable right to get it. Hasn't our society, propelled by its marketing engine, reached such an advanced level that we can, and indeed hold as a right, everyone's desire to make and find fulfilled, the choices that are "right for them"? Don't we define a "fulfilled" person as one who has been able to gratify his choices? Choice is so sacred to us that one of the principal legal underpinnings of our capitalism is that for every product and service on the market there must be at least two separate companies offering their choices to the buyer. Consequently, whenever the subject of abortion comes up, people reflexively whip out the phrase 'woman's choice' as if it were an advertising slogan. In their minds it means quite simply that if a woman finds herself pregnant, she has every right to decide whether to follow through to full-term motherhood or to stop by an abortion clinic and have her "biological mass" removed. Whatever she decides to do, nobody is conceded the right to interfere with her choice for abortion any more than with her choice between buying a schooner and a catboat. Our whole economy and democracy are solidly based on an abhorrence of any restraint being made on our free choice. In the pro-choice logic, this 'woman's choice' slogan is seen as a door slammer on a par with 'all men are created equal,' 'freedom of speech,' 'the American way,' and 'separation of Church and state.' The 'woman's choice' slogan is thought to preclude all further discussion or even thought on the abortion issue. What more could possibly be said? Abortion sounds like a wonderfully easy and clean solution to unwanted pregnancy, and it apparently has the moral backing of our sacred utopia of consumer choice. What we end up with then is a "bio-mass" or "product of conception" under construction inside of the mother's body, and only her caprice determines whether the embryo is a human being or an expendable growth. As a father, I look at my three children and ask where does fatherhood come into all of this? If motherhood has no necessary meaning for a woman, then what does our world want fatherhood to mean to a man? Since both a man and a woman are needed to procreate a baby, can I not assign a 50 percent share of the parenthood to each of the actors in the procreation drama? Neither one, working alone, can come up with a new addition to our human race. The man contributes the spermatozoa and the woman contributes the ovum and the womb where the new life will implant itself and grow to birth readiness. If she decides that it is a baby, then the father is expected to feel an unconditional and sublime love for the son or daughter who is "flesh of his flesh, and blood of his blood," one at being with his own heart, for love of whom he would willingly sacrifice his own life. Interestingly, Lamaze childbirth preparation classes have no vacillations about parental love. The instructors state right from the first session that there is no such thing as a pregnant woman; the couple is pregnant together. I just cannot reconcile the concepts of "woman's choice" and "paternal responsibilities." If the entire choice of whether to let a baby be accepted as a human being and be born rests solely on the choice of the mother, then how can there be such a thing as paternal responsibility? Is it fair for us to speak of paternal responsibility without including paternal rights? How can we as a society hold a man responsible for the existence of a baby if he indeed has no say in whether the child reaches birth? Most importantly, how can that rock solid, limitless and unconditional love which a father is expected to have for his child spring into being if the child's continuing existence is at the whim of the mother? These contrary expectations put a man in an impossible situation, unless he has a heart of granite. If a woman can use the expression 'my choice' to get out of maternity, why can't a man use the same phrase to get out of paternity? If we do not allow him to do this, then don't we say in effect that a woman's rights are more important than a man's rights? The entire struggle to make a woman's rights equal to a man's rights is a worthy and noble cause, but if we put the woman's rights above the man's rights, then we have fallen back into the trap of re-establishing inequality before the law. A generation ago we had white people enjoying more favor before the law than did black people. What would it have solved to flip/flop this situation and favor the blacks while discriminating against the whites? We would have merely traded one form of social injustice and discrimination for another and have set up a situation that cried out for its own counter struggle.

Today when a mother goes into court with a paternity suit against the father of her child, the man pleads with the judge that, since she had the option of an abortion, there is no responsibility on his part if she decided to keep the baby. We hear on the news (and know cases personally) of men who have no attachment to or sense of responsibility for their children, never see their kids, never pay any child support money. Don't we instinctively condemn them on the most basic of levels and want the government to force them to at least live up to their financial responsibilities? What do we want of fathers? What are the consequences to society of having less than strong, dedicated, constant and self-sacrificing fathers?

Jane Addams, the famed foundress of Chicago's Hull House, in her 1907 book The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, relates that "We all know as a matter of course that every shop is crowded with workingmen who year after year spend all of their wages upon the nature and education of their children, reserving for themselves but the shabbiest clothing and a crowded place at the family table. 'Bad weather for you to be out in,' you remark on a February evening, as you meet rheumatic Mr. S. hobbling home through the freezing sleet without an overcoat. 'Yes, it is bad,' he asserts, 'but I've walked to work all this last year. We've sent the oldest boy back to high school, you know,' and he moves on with no thought that he is doing other than fulfilling the ordinary lot of the ordinary man."

Another man tells her, "My cousin and his family had to go back to Italy. He got to Ellis Island with his wife and five children, but they wouldn't let in the feeble-minded boy, so of course they all went back with him. My cousin was fearful disappointed." What do we want to teach our sons about fatherhood? What qualities do we want them to have as fathers when their turn comes in the next generation? What sense of protectiveness do we want fathers to instinctively have for their offspring? If we don't want the father to protect the child in the womb against the mother's caprices, then why do we expect him to protect that child later on from the inevitable dangers of the world?

A few years ago the story was circulated of a well-to-do businessman who went on a fishing trip to the coast of Alaska with two of his friends, as well as his 12-year-old son. The father had made a number of these vacation trips before and felt that his son was old enough now that he could introduce him to the joys he had long found with this type of fishing and outdoor living in the rugged North. They all flew in on a small amphibious plane which the father piloted to the inlet on the ocean along which their cabin was located.

They had a perfect time for the two weeks they were there, so much so that all of them, including the boy, looked forward to coming back there to fish in the coming year. As the four were leaving to come back home, the little plane went out of control and crashed and sank into that inlet from the sea. In the inevitable confusion and panic, the two men were just able to make it to shore, in spite of the strong offshore current.

The boy evidently had been severely enough hurt in the crash that he was unconscious. The father stayed with him in the water and struggled to bring the son to shore with him, but soon realized that he could not make it to shore against such a strong current with the son in tow. The horrified men on shore could do nothing to help the situation. The father could not make it to shore with his son and would not save himself at the expense of abandoning the boy in the water. All he could do was stay with his boy to the end. They were last seen drifting out to sea with the son in this father's arms.

Would the father have willingly sacrificed his own life for his son in this way if the son's value only came from the mother's choice? How can the depth of all of these paternal outpourings of love be reconciled with the trivialization of children's lives by the easy call for 'woman's choice'?

Jane Addams expressed the situation most poignantly when she said, "That wonderful devotion to the child seems at times, in the midst of our stupid social and industrial arrangements, all that keeps society human, the touch of nature which unites it, as it was that same devotion which lifted it out of the swamp of bestiality. The devotion to the child is the inevitable conclusion of . . . the devotion of man to woman." It is, of course, this tremendous force which makes possible the family, that bond which holds society together and blends the experience of generation[s] into a continuous story. "...this dual bond must be made anew a myriad [of] times in each generation, and the forces upon which its formation depend must be powerful and unerring. It would be too great a risk to leave it to a force whose manifestations are intermittent and uncertain. The desired result is too grave and fundamental."

As long as the phrase 'woman's choice' holds sway, the concept of fatherhood— not to mention family—is imperiled. Society cannot long survive under its destructive influence.

Michael Peters is a technical writer who resides in Oak Park, Illinois. Taken from the August 1995 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe contact: HLI Reports 7845 Airpark Road Suite E Gaithersburg, MD 20879