Tuesday, January 04, 2011

To Every Debate, Two Extremes

Forced abortion. This is not a policy I would have thought would get much traction in the US. Right? How would you expect to hear forced abortion described? As a human rights violation, no?

I'm teaching the subject of abortion debates in an upper-division feminist theory course right now. It's the second time I've taught about abortion debates at my current institution. Since it's the topic least likely to elicit rational discussion, I try to leave it off my agenda. But I'm using this great textbook which deals with the topic so nicely, I figured I'd give it a try.

The consensus which was voiced most clearly in the classroom was that--hold on to your hats--women should be legally forced to have abortions if the father of the fetus does not want to pay child support. One student argued for this idea and then, one by one, the other three males in the class jumped on board. Oh, to be fair, one student said that he wouldn't go so far as to require forced abortion, but men should be relieved of providing child support if the pregnant woman won't get an abortion when her partner asks her to. And another said that he's less in favor of forced abortion than he is in favor of the idea that abortion should be available to women only when their sex partner signs off on it. Which is to say that only men should be able to make decisions about women acquiring an abortion.

Out of about 25 women, only one spoke in defense of women's right to not have unwanted medical procedures forced on them.

Why did these students think that forced abortion is a position they could support in a feminist theory classroom, especially after reading a long and sensitive chapter in a feminist theory textbook? And where were the feminist voices? One student told me privately that the views expressed were so ignorant of what we had been discussing that it was impossible to know where to start. But I also worry that at this university, where women make up less than a third of the student body, students have become resigned to overt sexism.

An additional note: any ideas about whether I should return to this discussion in the next class meeting? It seems to me that a class occurrence this far from the basis for the rest of our discussion deserves more attention and can best be dealt with using humor. But, ummm, I don't quite know how to joke about serious proposals for forced abortions. Ideas?


Matthew Slater said...

Yikes! I'm glad I don't teach this course. I think I'd start taking the idea of forced lobotomies seriously. . . . Good luck. Looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this.

Anonymous said...

Wow! The idea of forced abortions are as bad as forced gestation, and quite possibly a lot worse. You should have students read tales of forced abortion in China - I have my students read this. However, I have to say that the idea of men being able to opt out of child support in the case of an unwanted pregnancy is not nearly as absurd. Steven Hales makes some good arguments about this in "Abortion and Father's Rights" and Elizabeth Brake has an article about this too (though I cannot quite remember the name). While I don't think Hales' argument is quite successful in the end, it is decent argument, and the position merits discussion. It is certainly not as terrifyingly absurd as forced abortions.

Evelyn Brister said...

Elizabeth Brake writes on issues of marriage and family relationships from a feminist perspective. I look forward to reading her article--thanks for the reference. On the surface of it, my inclination is to think that such a position ignores certain difficulties associated with childbearing, including cultural and religious objections to abortion, possible psychological attachments to fetuses (again, as a result of cultural mores rather than an essential nature), and the lack of social support available to mother's in contemporary American society. But, of course, I will have to read the article.

Here's the reference:
Elizabeth Brake (2005). Fatherhood and Child Support: Do Men Have a Right to Choose? Journal of Applied Philosophy 22 (1):55–73.