The Men versus Abortion Myth and the Assumption of Bad Intent

The Men versus Abortion Myth and the Assumption of Bad Intent

If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.
— Gloria Steinem

In the public debate on abortion, there seems to be a prevailing narrative that the debate over abortion is gendered. That is to say, women are demanding a right, and men are denying them that right. This is not only empirically wrong, but an unhelpful way of viewing the debate.

Presupposed in this debate is the conception that people vote in their own interest and that abortion is not in the interest of men, only women—a specious claim. Despite possibly not having to raise the child, it is not as if men have no consequences from fathering a child. The most cynical and fundamental obligation is the monetary consequence of either providing for the child as a father, or paying child support. This alone raises into doubt the assumption that men have no interest in the practice of abortion. But there are also surely some emotional consequences as well. Even if a father chooses to be negligent for his child, he is probably harboring some emotional cost. Since having an abortion is the choice of a woman, men will probably feel more exonerated of responsibility if women chose to have abortions. This is not to say that men are equally harmed by an unwanted child. Women's lives are almost always more burdened. This should dispel the notion though that men somehow benefit from unwanted pregnancies, or even bear no cost. So even if we assume that people do vote in their own interest, men should not be voting or advocating against abortion. 

But we should not even assume that people vote in their own interests. There is strong evidence to support that people consistently instead vote against their interests. Liberal journalist and historian Thomas Frank documented this famously in What's the Matter With Kansas. Libertarian economist Brian Caplan makes a similar argument in The Myth of the Rational Voter: "Empirically there is little connection between voting and material interests. Contrary to popular stereotypes of the rich Republican and the poor Democrat, income and party identify are only loosely related. The elderly are if anything slightly less supportive of Social Security and Medicare than the rest of the population. Men are more supportive of abortion than women." A more detailed refutation of the Self-Interested Voter Hypothesis can be found here. For this discussion, the last example is particularly key. Caplan isn't the only one making this observation. Some polls have challenged these findings in the last few years, particularly in America, but regardless it is often true and has often been trueThese studies only argue that the difference may be statistically insignificant, not that men are substantially more pro-Life. Even Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff of Roe v. Wade famously became a Pro-Life advocate.

There are a few ways you can run with this. The first would be that men have somehow tricked women in to this position. This would be a weird assumption as men are (probably) more in favor of abortion rights in the first place, making an already hard-to-believe conspiracy less believable. Not only that, but it also implies this strangely anti-Feminist 'Women are damsels susceptible into being tricked into voting against their own interests' narrative. It perpetuates a pretentious notion that you are advocating for women and the fact other women disagree simply don't know what's best for them, God forbid they actually have thoroughly thought out reasons for believing what they do. Or we could simply accept the conclusion that Occam might feel compelled to accept -- that people have principles and vote with respect to them. In the vast majority of cases, these principles are what people perceive are the best interests of their country.

This leads us to a broader point: Maybe we should stop assuming malignancy every time we are confronted with a differing opinion. In fact, this is probably one of our most practically important foundations to public debate.  This foundation has been significantly eroded in recent years. This has been most pronounced with the Tea Party sentiment that Obama hates America. Many Republicans don't just assume that Obama has a slightly different vision for them about what America could be, they think he is actively trying to harm it. This is incredibly destructive to public discourse. But the Democrats are not free from blame either. The smugness of Daily Show style Liberalism perpetuated the notion on the Left that Republicans do not have a different and respectable vision of an ideal America, but an idiotic one centered around hate and persecution of racial minorities, the LGBTQ community, and immigrants. There is no Principle of Charity that Republicans might sincerely believe that something like Broken Window Policing is in the best interest of both African-American and White communities. No, it is only a vehicle of minority persecution, a modern Jim Crow. Of course there are times when people really do have bad intent. Some Republicans surely want an idiotic hate based America. We know some Liberals, particularly of the Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn persuasion, really do hate America. But these examples are relatively obscure and they do not diminish the fact that being charitable, or assuming good intent, is an excellent heuristic. For if someone has good intent and you address it as bad intent, you miss their argument. If someone has bad intent and you address it as good, you still give their ideas the privilege of fair consideration.

Let us fight these assumptions of bad intent whenever we see them. When we see a Men v. Abortion narrative being pushed, attack it as incorrect. Only then can we actually get to the interesting debates: whether a fetus is a human, whether it is in a morally relevant sense. There are incredibly interesting reasons why people think abortion is atrociously immoral. But it also takes time and effort to understand them. It is much harder to understand the doctrine of Aristotelian Final Causes and how they relate to the doctrine of Natural Theology and those implications on the modern abortion debate than to accuse your opponents of misogyny. Adhering to stringent meta-debate standards is hard but it is what we should strive for.


At a Bernie Rally

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Athwart's Summer Reading List