While watching a rerun of the U.S. legal drama series Boston Legal a few weeks ago I was reminded of a conversation I had with a male friend of mine a few years ago about abortion. I remember this particular conversation because as a pro choice womanist I was for the first time in my life confronted with a different but all too real and perhaps even more common than we realise perspective on male experiences with making the decision on whether or not to terminate a pregnancy.
He was and still is pro life and we had been engaged in a debate around women’s sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) and more specifically abortion when he decided to share one of his personal experiences in a bid to substantiate his stance against abortion. He shared with me the pain and hopelessness he felt when an ex girlfriend of his had told him while they were still dating that she had been pregnant with his baby and that she had terminated the pregnancy because she was not ready to have a baby. As he recounted this story to me that day the pain and bitterness he still carried with him was very evident on his face even though this experience had taken place a couple of years before and he was now in a loving relationship with another woman.
Until that moment I had never thought that there was an emotional stake in this issue for men too. This friend of mine, although still at university and still dependent on his parents much like his partner at the time, felt robbed of his right to choose whether or not to have his child brought into the world and his right to be a father to that child. He felt that he, much like she did, had a right to have a say because that fetus, that product of consensual sex between two young adults conceived in love growing inside of this young woman was also a part of him. He felt hard done by this choice that his partner had taken without even having the decency of letting him know that she was pregnant to begin with. He felt hopeless and powerless and not in the I-am-a-man-therefore-I-am-superior sort of way but in the way that a victim of oppression feels when their agency and right to choose is snatched away from them.
I sat there dumbfounded as I watched a grown, (and in his case strong and self assured) brown (black) Afrikan man come close to tears as he recounted this secret of his young life and it challenged everything I thought I knew about Afrikan men and about sexual and reproductive health rights and forced me to question a lot of my own principles as a self proclaimed human rights activist. One of the principles I was forced to interrogate was my definition of the word human in relation to human rights. Did my human rights activism only go as far as championing the rights of women and children while completely disregarding the needs and rights of men? Did it completely ignore the anything but fabled emotions and psychological needs of men rendering them collateral damage in this battle against inequality and patriarchy? It was during this conversation with my friend that I first realised that patriarchy was not only the enemy of women but the enemy of men too, whether or not most men realise let alone admit it to anyone else.
The episode of Boston Legal in question is the one where a man approaches the courts to ask them to force a woman he had had sex with to terminate a pregnancy she had by him as he felt he had been violated and exploited by this woman who had impregnated herself with his sperm which she had acquired duplicitously i.e. by retrieving the discarded condom they had used when they had sexual intercourse and used the sperm contained in the condom to impregnate herself through in vitro fertilisation. The debate was whether or not he had a right to force her to terminate her pregnancy and his lawyer argued that she had no right to do what she did especially given that she had expressed her desire to have his baby and he had explicitly told her that he was not interested in having a baby with her and that she had used underhanded means to steal his sperm and conceive a baby with that same sperm without his consent.
Often times when discussing SRHR it is mostly in the context of women and girls and as a result most psycho-social and medical support services that are available are designed for women and although I cannot say for certain, I doubt that there are any such services designed to cater for men and boys and their need to heal too after a termination. We live in a world that in a lot of ways makes it difficult for men, especially men of colour to step up to the plate of fatherhood. In Afrika we constantly hear stories of absentee fathers, of fathers who renege on their maintenance obligations, of fathers who renege on their psycho-social and emotional responsibilities, of the men and boys who either force their partners to terminate a pregnancy or to have a baby but we never really hear the stories of the fathers, men and boys who beg for the right to be a part of their child’s life or the men and boys who plead with their partners to carry their pregnancy to term. Of course the plight of women and girls in this very patriarchal world is far greater than that of the opposite sex but perhaps it’s time we also started looking at the impact this system has on men and boys too and how this continues to reinforce gender inequality in our societies.
The Boston Legal story, much like that of my friend’s and many others out there, is a classic case of whose rights are more legitimate and it does present a quandary. Both stories also clearly highlight that cases concerning bodily integrity and SRHR are nuanced and are not as clear cut or black and white as we’d like to believe they are. It is important for us to realise that these matters also greatly affect men, not just women. It is also important to acknowledge that in these sorts of cases that both women and men are victims of the unfair decision made by nature and the dictates set down by the system of patriarchy; both of which pit one’s rights against the other’s. Setting aside the privileges and comparative plethora of choices afforded men by the oppressive dictates of patriarchy for a moment, and just looking at the physicality of human beings (and nature in general) men really do not have a choice when it comes to bringing a child into this world. In instances of monogamous heterosexual relations, many men have been hurt and it can be argued, traumatised by their female partners’ decision to terminate a pregnancy without consulting or informing them in advance or in the event that they did inform them, without taking into consideration their male partner’s feelings or desire to have the child.
With that said however, I remain pro choice today and continue to champion the SRHR of women and girls because in spite of cases such as these, women around the world, and especially here on the continent, are more deprived of their right to choice over their bodies and that they, more than men, are deprived of bodily integrity and are violated in the most heinous ways in the name of patriarchy. Notwithstanding, I would also like to say that the rights of men are equally important and I would like to suggest that in the case of an unplanned pregnancy between two consenting adults, dialogue between the two parties involved and due consideration for the other is paramount in the decision making process. Ultimately, the ideal would be a situation where both parties take into consideration the rights and the needs and wishes of the other and come to the decision together and that whatever decision is reached is in the best interest of all involved and that includes the unborn child. It is my hope that in our quest towards empowerment and equality we are careful not to leave others behind by re-enacting and reinforcing marginalisation others ourselves.