Jane Caro: A Woman Is Not A Container For A Man's Baby
What is the moral situation when a man has sex with a woman and, if she becomes pregnant and chooses to terminate the pregnancy, decides to use the courts to punish those who provided the abortion?
What responsibility does a man have for the possible consequences of his sperm entering a woman’s body? Did he wear a condom? Did he discuss contraception with his partner? Did he make his attitudes to abortion clear before they had sex? Did he tell her what he would do if she decided to terminate any resulting pregnancy?
If he did none of those things, what rights does he have to impose his will on her, and those who provided the legal termination she sought, post the act?
You may scoff at the above scenario, but it has just become terrifyingly real for one 16-year-old girl, her family and the people who helped her terminate her pregnancy in the US.
Women in that country are reeling under a further blow to their now fragile reproductive rights. As a result of so-called foetal ‘personhood’ laws, a 19-year-old Alabama man has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Alabama Women’s Center (for providing a medical abortion at six weeks gestation), three of its employees and the pharmaceutical company that distributed the abortion medication.
The father, Ryan Magers, has appointed himself the ‘personal representative’ of the deceased foetus' estate. Just to make matters worse, the girl’s family claim that Magers pressured their daughter into having sex.
Women in Australia may shake their heads, but we cannot afford to be complacent. Abortion remains a crime in NSW and there are a range of restrictions on accessibility in most states. Even more worryingly, similar ‘personhood’ laws have also been introduced into our state’s parliaments -- most recently ‘Zoe’s Law’ by Fred Nile in NSW.
Our right to safe, legal, accessible, affordable abortion is nowhere near as secure as many of us think.
Reproductive coercion is a recognised part of the cycle of domestic violence. Basically it is when someone else takes control of a woman’s reproductive decisions. It can include forced continuation of an unwanted pregnancy, sabotage of contraception (the practice of ‘stealthing’ where a man removes his condom mid-sex without telling his partner is an example), and forced termination of a pregnancy against the woman’s will.
If controlling your partner, keeping her dependent on you and preventing her from leaving is your aim, then weighing her down with small children is a powerful way to do just that. Magers' decision to punish those who provided his sexual partner with the termination she wanted, veers very close to the definition of reproductive coercion.
Fortunately, as the US moves further toward the extremes of controlling women’s bodies, other countries are doing the opposite. Notably in Ireland, where its citizens overwhelmingly voted to remove the infamous 8th Amendment which, in the words of Irish author Anne Enright, "changed the impregnated woman from a human being into a relationship" by giving the foetus the same rights as the mother.
As she pointed out, pregnant women were no longer individuals with their own rights under the 8th. They were defined exclusively by their relationship to the foetus, even when it was just a cluster of cells.
This amendment resulted in many Irishwomen trekking to the UK to access abortions and some women died -- notably Savita Halappanavar, who died of septicemia because the Irish hospital where she and her desperate husband sought help refused to remove the foetus she was miscarrying as it still had a heartbeat, and so had the same legal rights as she did.
After such horror, it was doubly moving to watch the Irish -- both men and women -- return to their country in droves to vote for repeal.
As one elderly man put it, “We’ve been very hard on women in Ireland.”
It is estimated that about 65,000 Australian women have a termination every year, the vast majority of them, like the 16-year-old at the centre of the Alabama court case, in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Given these latest moves in the US, it is very important that we also focus on men’s responsibility for unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.
As someone pointed out, men are fertile for 365 days a year -- women for about 36.
Frankly, if a man does not take precautions to prevent pregnancy, if he does not discuss his attitude to abortion with potential sexual partners in advance, I cannot for the life of me understand why he would feel he has the right to then tell a woman that due to one of his stray sperm, she has just stopped being an independent person and become a container for his baby.
That’s what’s really not on.