I guess we all know by now about the US’ most restrictive anti-abortion law, recently passed by the Alabama state government. Jessica Valenti has summed up some of the startling scientific ignorance of the lawmakers. Alex Morris in Rolling Stone has pointed out the classist and racist impacts of such a bill in such a state in such a country in our time. Zillions of people are pointing out the ominous foreshadowing of some kind of “Handmaid’s Tale” dystopian theocracy. We’re all singing the Alabama Blues, and with good reason.
So I thought I’d weigh in. Why not, everyone else is.
Let’s accept for the moment that eliminating abortion as a practise is a very high social priority. Let’s define abortion as an innately Bad Thing, as murder, as a crime. Let’s assume that we really have to stop this crime from happening…. even if we have to do some heavy-handed social engineering, infringe on some people’s personal liberties and bodily autarchy, to do so. Let’s say it’s OK to play legislative hardball, get pretty draconian here, pretty radical (as with the ‘Bama bill) — because the underlying moral principle is so important: abortion is murder, and it cannot be permitted, end of story. [Note: I’m not saying I agree with this position, but it is a moral position that many people sincerely believe; so let’s engage with that.]
OK, with that premise in mind let’s imagine an equally radical legislative approach to preventing abortion at all costs.
[Of course I offer this as a thought experiment more than as a concrete and practical plan. I would say its chances of being adopted by any legislature on the planet (even the most civilised and advanced such as the Scandinavian bloc) are nearly nil. Nevertheless, it’s a Modest Proposal in the Swiftian sense…]
Step 1: all young men are vasectomised (reversibly) at the age of fertility, say about 14. It’s a rite of passage and celebrated proudly by family and friends. Vasectomised young men obtain an official card certifying their new, adult status.
Step 2: in order to have this procedure reversed, prospective parents present themselves at a licensed and credentialled outpatient clinic, bringing with them a signed and witnessed agreement between a legally competent adult man and woman; the woman attests that she wants a child, wants to get pregnant, and wants to get pregnant by this particular man; the man attests that he wants to be a father, and wants this particular woman to be the mother. This contract may or may not include an obligation on the father’s part to provide partially or fully for child and/or mother post-partum; this would depend on the relative health, affluence, age, domestic arrangements etc. of each party. It might include a lifetime liability, or not. The parental couple would decide their own terms. Certain pre-existing conditions might prevent their obtaining permission to reproduce, such as one or other partner’s severe alcoholism (high risk of FAS), history of abusive or violent behaviour, history of paedophilia etc. But if approved, at this point the gentleman’s “infertility card” would be confiscated and held in escrow until the matter of reproduction was settled one way or another.
Step 3: time goes by; the happy couple achieve pregnancy. Or perhaps they don’t.
Step 4: as soon as successful live birth takes place (or the couple give up the project for whatever reason), the new daddy is once again vasectomised (reversibly). He gets his card back. For male readers who squirm with discomfort and anxiety contemplating the prospect as “the price of fatherhood,” trust me, it is peanuts compared to childbirth. (I’ve attended at a vasectomy and have many friends who have given live birth; the easiest live birth was far more gruelling than a vasectomy.)
Step 5: the couple adhere to their contract — or if they don’t, litigation ensues, and the human comedy goes on.
If everyone played by these rules, the number of live births in the world would be determined (almost entirely) by consensus decisions on the part of competent adult women and their trusted male partners in reproduction. Women who did not wish to reproduce wouldn’t. Men who did not wish to be responsible for children wouldn’t father accidental ones and then abandon them — or get saddled with paternal obligations they resent. While rapists would still do major damage to womens’ and girls’ bodies and psyches, at least they could not inflict pregnancy and abortion or childbirth on their prey.
Hetero men who prefer to be widely or indiscriminately active could do so without imposing pregnancy on their sexual playmates. Almost all children would be consciously planned and sincerely wanted. No child would ever be told by an angry or drunken parent, “You were a mistake.” Very few babies would be separated from their bio-mums and handed over to strangers, with all the potential that this has for disrupting emotional development during a crucial period. Of course a handful of eager Mums and/or Dads would discover that the reality of parenthood was sharply disappointing compared to their idealistic fantasy; there would be some “mama’s/papa’s remorse,” some kids would get less enthusiastic parenting than others; but that happens today anyway, and no one can legislate away the human tendency to wishful thinking.
For men who find this thought experiment absolutely outrageous — what a grotesque idea, that a surgical procedure should be expected or required for purposes of birth control! — consider for a moment that a successful vasectomy should be safer & less painful than an IUD (as I understand the anecdotal record, never having personally experienced either); and some folks have happily considered IUDs to be “just common sense” for women seeking to avoid pregnancy. Why should an invasive surgical procedure to defeat fertility be unthinkable for men, but commonplace for women? [Well, we know the answer to that one, but let’s ask anyway.]
A strong point of the model: unlike a condom which can be deliberately omitted or fail accidentally, a successful vasectomy is failsafe and cannot be reversed by the mere whim of the man in question. Under this model, men could not “accidentally on purpose,” or genuinely accidentally, impregnate a female partner. Women could not “trap a husband” by pretending to be protected when they were not. Pregnancy could not be achieved by deceit on either part, or (as noted above) by force.
A weak point of the model: during the “let’s get pregnant” period, the male partner in each case would have the opportunity (once his fertility had been restored) to run around impregnating other women. So during that N-month period an irresponsible man could still “spread it about a bit” and pollinate more widely than he agreed to. But sensible women would demand to see his infertility card, and if he could not produce it, either avoid sex with him or take extra precautions themselves. A sufficiently malicious irresponsible man could seize the opportunity to rape women, in the hope of impregnating them or simply not giving a damn. So…
Step 6: just as the Alabama Taliban proposes to inflict serious legal penalties and punishments on transgressors (be they women or doctors), the system I propose here would have to offer some serious consequences for men who (for example) take advantage of the weak point above and impregnate women outside of a responsible mutual agreement. DNA testing is now pretty conclusive; so if a man could be shown by DNA test to have fathered a child without any formal permission from the mother, and the prospective mother filed a complaint, that man would be permanently, irreversibly sterilised and obliged either to pay for a safe and legal abortion procedure for the deceived or raped woman, or to support his extra-contractual offspring until its adulthood if the mother chooses not to terminate.
This system may sound incredibly repressive. But it’s merely a mirror image of the age-old institutions of marriage, child support, and (il)legitimacy. The difference is that it redefines “legitimacy” as “not violating the will and freedom of women” rather than “conforming with the property rights of patriarchs.” It puts the burden of limiting fertility (to mutually intentional incidents) more on men than on women.
Traditionally, as we know, women have been held responsible and liable for pregnancy regardless of how it was initiated. The system I suggest here would make both men and women legally liable, and prevent either party (male or female) from surreptitiously starting a pregnancy without the other person’s knowledge or consent. Consider the benefits: either gender would be able to seek and enjoy heterosexual activity without the lurking anxiety of accidental impregnation, and almost all children born would be wanted (and their support guaranteed by binding legal contract). Sounds like a better outcome, sounds like a less cruel and destructive social engineering plan.
The other nagging question that will haunt any thoughtful reader at this point is the danger of vesting control over people’s reproductive capacity in bureaucratic institutions such as the medical profession and the State. If witnessed legal documents are required for legitimate pregnancy… then what if discrimination is practised to prevent certain types of people from obtaining such documents, so that they can be banned from reproducing? In Trump’s America for example, even supposing that such a radically gender-egalitarian system as described here could ever be approved and enacted [ha bloody ha!], it’s all too easy to imagine large demographic sectors being barred from obtaining the necessary documents. The price of such documents could be raised out of the reach of poor people; immigrants could be denied access to the documentary process; and so on.
On the other hand, as we are seeing daily, the system we have now is just as open to abuse by authoritarian or reactionary forces. The only thing that keeps the State and the bureaucracy honest is the vigilance and activity of citizens and a free press, and that remains true regardless of the specific policies being carried out. The policy of forcing pregnancy on women is likely to hurt poor women and women of colour more than it does affluent and White women who can buy their way out of the trap; the olwhiteboy mania for controlling women’s bodies is imho deeply related to white nationalist paranoia; so the racism is baked in either way, and presents a separate problem to be solved (or a mental illness to be treated?), regardless of how we approach fertility and reproduction.
Have fun with the model. Sit with the “outrageousness” of it a bit: the more outrageous it seems, the more closely one should read the marriage laws of the 19th and earlier centuries (and the letter and implications of the Alabama bill). The would-be theocrats of 21st century America have enacted a very radical bill; alternatives or responses to it should be equally visionary and radical. I invite readers to come up with their own Modest Proposals that also result in making abortion obsolete, without inflicting forced pregnancy on women — which imho amounts to legalised slavery.
Coda: just one more thing — imho abortion is not an optimal solution. Women would not need abortions if men managed their own fertility responsibly. Abortion is an invasive and sometimes painful procedure, not without risk (like any other medical procedure), forced on women as a desperate alternative to potentially disastrous unwanted motherhood. If immunity to pregnancy could be achieved by focussed meditation, by drinking the right herbal tea or by clicking our heels together three times, abortion would never have been invented. I too would like to make abortion obsolete, because it is not a nice experience and it exemplifies the dumping of responsibility for fertility and pregnancy entirely on women. That is something that has to stop.