Dear Dr. Conley,
You won’t remember me. I took your “Introduction to Sociology” lecture in the Fall of 2001 at New York University; I received a B+ in the course and we never spoke. I liked your class because it was full of good conversation starters and softball assignments and my only complaint was that I was required to buy your 1999 title “Being Black, Living in the Red” (we discussed it for only half of one session and the connection was shaky). I thought of you again when a glamour-shot of you appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine. I experienced a brief thrill. But I can’t say I would have spent much more energy on you had it not been for your New York Times op-ed that appeared on December 1 of last year, “A Man’s Right to Choose.”
By now a rebuttal of your argument is old hat – it’s been four months – but gosh, I was riled up. A few days after I read your statement that “If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create,” I sat in Blue 9 Burger with my boyfriend and struggled, between bites, to articulate a scathing letter to the Times that would use remembered principles from Intro to Soc. to dismember your argument. My basic strategy was to remind you of one Tuesday morning when you asked your class to “Think about bathroom lines. The women’s line is always longer. Why?” By this point, my ears had perked up (conversation starter!). “They do more in there,” you continued. “They have to sit down, they have to use sanitary products, they change babies more than the men do. But the bathrooms are the same size as the men’s, and so the lines are longer.” I was convinced: for all members of society to receive equal treatment, their inequalities must be addressed. The women should have more stalls than the men, so everybody can pee and buy popcorn at intermission. So when I reached the portion of “A Man’s Right to Choose” when you described the “real work” of pregnancy as “morning sickness, leg cramps, biological risks and so on,” and used that reduction to argue that a male lifetime commitment to his child should render that nine-month female commitment fairly irrelevant, I was baffled. It seemed to me that pregnancy alone (forget the kid!) could and often does threaten a woman’s job, support system, and health. Her boss doesn’t care, her family sure does, and not in a good way, and her diabetes can’t handle it. Those problems aren’t solved with soda crackers and a back rub, Dr. Conley. What you glibly called “biological risks and so on” is a exclusively female set of predicaments, and should inform women’s rights accordingly.
I didn’t write that letter, and I didn’t need to. Critics much more intelligent and eloquent than I, namely Longview Fellow Carole Joffe, took you up on your challenge to examine “men’s claims to a role in the reproductive decision-making process” outside of marriage. In her open letter to you, she primarily focuses on the practical (or rather, impractical) implications of your proposal, finding that it “would create havoc in this already over-regulated and unnecessarily chaotic branch of the health care system.” Joffe points to surrogate mothering as an example of what happens when a pregnancy involves two contractually bound parties, and she asks how your proposal would accommodate these documented problems: “What happens when prenatal diagnosis in such a pregnancy reveals severe fetal anomalies? Does the father now have the right to change his mind about wanting the child that will result from this pregnancy? Even if he does relent and free the woman to choose an abortion, he is subjecting her to a later, more complex and considerably more expensive procedure. And will the father also have the right to monitor the pregnant woman’s behavior during her pregnancy? Will he obtain further court orders to forbid drug and alcohol use? If the pregnancy becomes “high risk,” will he ask a court to mandate bed rest, and to forbid sexual intercourse with others during the pregnancy?” I must say that though I was compelled by the anecdotes you shared about your ex-girlfriend’s abortion (against your wishes) and your friend’s ex-fiancee’s pregnancy (against his wishes), I found Joffe’s scenarios of more urgent concern. If you haven’t yet read her letter, I strongly urge you to do so – she also includes information about the “considerable efforts to involve men in the abortion process in appropriate ways.”
I’m imagining you. You’ve just read Joffe’s letter. You’re happy she paid you such attention, and you think she makes some great points. Mostly though, you’re frustrated. She took you too seriously. I don’t think you were actually trying to argue for a society that would subject women to such treatment, I think you were trying to urge your readers to think for a few moments about the incongruity of child support and abortion laws in this country. You’re a pro-choice guy with personal experience with abortion, and all you want to do is have a conversation. “I can accept that it is ‘your’ body but will someone please then just engage the argument that fatherhood should then be voluntary?” you beg of those who responded online to your Huffington Post piece, “Why My ‘Man’s Right to Choose’ Abortion Argument is Made from a Feminist Perspective.” You’ve used the site to admit you oversimplified in your piece, and to clarify your argument, and to say you shouldn’t have written that bit about how a committed dad “should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create.” You’re aching for a real dialogue about fathers and mothers and pregnant women and men who impregnate them, and everyone’s focusing on that pesky question: But how would it work?
I’m interested in that dialogue too, and your initial question crossed my mind again today. “…[W]hen men and women engage in sexual relations both parties recognize the potential for creating life,” you wrote in December. “If both parties willingly participate then shouldn’t both have a say in whether to keep a baby that results?” And I wondered why, Dr. Conley, you chose to focus your energy solely on reproductive rights after conception. Unmanageable, Impractical, Outrageous! we scream when you imply coerced pregnancies and abortions. But what about contraception? Manageable, Practical, Sound. I don’t think both parties should have a legal say in whether to terminate a pregancy that results from consensual sex, but I do think both parties should be able to negotiate the potential for creating life on equal terms. And right now, male options – condoms, abstinence, withdrawal, vasectomy – just pale in comparison to the scads available to women. I’ve got abstinence, diaphragms, the sponge, spermicide, the female condom, an I.U.D., Plan-B, tubal ligation. And more significantly, I’ve got the pill, the patch, the shot, the ring, and sometime soon, a spray. If men and women conceive as equal partners, I wonder why you’re not upset about the gross inequality of contraceptive options for men and women, and why you aren’t taking notice of the trial study of a male birth-control ‘pill’ conducted by the pharmaceutical companies Organon and Schering AG that was set to finish the same month that your op-ed appeared in the Times.
Continuous and reversible male contraception isn’t a new idea. In 2003, Duke University Press published Nelly Oudshoorn’s “The Male Pill: A Biography of a Technology in the Making.” In it, Oudshoorn states that the viability of such contraceptives was firmly established as early as the 1970s, and argues that the reason you don’t have a prescription for a male birth control pill is more of a cultural, political, and economic story than a scientific one. Excess testosterone, administered orally, as an implant, or injection, lowers sperm count dramatically. Recent research indicates that when combined with progesterone, the hormones can effectively disable sperm production – and clinical trials of the testosterone-progesterone combination are now under way in Europe and Canada. Alternatively, some researchers posit that rendering sperm unable to reach an egg would do the trick; a study at the University of Washington found that monkeys became infertile when immunized against eppin, a protein found on the outside of sperm that’s necessary for fertilization. Both Planned Parenthood and HowStuffWorks.com have informative and readable articles that support Oudshoorn’s contention that the barriers facing male contraception aren’t technological. Rather, she cites lack of funding, unwillingness of research participants, and larger cultural representations of masculinity that don’t have room for pharmaceuticals that cause male infertility (consider for a moment the ubiquity of Viagra and the total absence of male birth control) as the major obstructions. Nevertheless, Oudshoorn concludes that the advent of male contraceptives is inevitable – as is a reevaluation of gender roles and responsibility.
I think she’s right, and I think you’ll be able to have an equal voice in the bedroom before the clinic and the courts. I think you should focus your attention less on your partner’s body, and more on your own. “A Man’s Right to Choose” rests on the assumption that your sperm is a unavoidable surrender, and that years of child support payment depend on a sea of factors out of your control. Did the condom break? Did we conceive? Is she going to have this kid? If you could use a safe, reliable, affordable, and reversible medication that would allow you to decide whether you were capable of creating life – as women have for years – I doubt you would feel as victimized in this debate. Obviously male birth control couldn’t necessarily prevent situations like yours or your friend’s, but a man should have the right to choose what he’s offering his partner. I think we agree that the ideal number of abortions is zero – and providing men with a way to control their fertility gives them a stake in that number.
Permit me to remind you of the closing words of “A Man’s Right to Choose.” You wrote: “Better to deal with the metaphorical dirty diapers than to pursue an inconsistent policy toward fatherhood and an abortion debate that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of all actors involved. Otherwise, don’t expect anything more of me than a few million sperm.” I’d like you to expect more of yourself, Dr. Conley. I’d like you to consider practically where your agency, both as a prominent scholar with many press contacts and as a male sexual partner, is most valuable and viable. It’s not in the message boards of the Huffington Post, or in court orders. It’s back where you started, in the pages of the New York Times and in the bedroom.