I recently saw a post shared on Instagram regarding abortion rights in which the person argued that there were not enough men coming forward to say how they were saved from unwanted fatherhood because of an abortion. The point of the post was to open the question of solidarity to those who actually stand against abortion restriction laws, and for those people to come forward with their support into the open. It’s one thing to say that I stand with something, some cause; but it’s another thing to relate an actual experience to it—to find its connective tissue back to the cause and the words themselves. So I wanted to tell a story that is at least partially mine to tell.
About five years ago, I was dating a woman, or trying to date a woman—I’m not sure if either of us truly knew we wanted to be with one another—and after a few impassioned nights she had disappeared for about three weeks. We had tickets to a concert coming up, and so I knew we would be seeing each other soon enough and the disappearance wasn’t out of the ordinary. The cadence of our relationship was damned to such cycles for much too long and perhaps was why we couldn’t get things to work. Never mind the embarrassment of trying to talk about this impossible concept of “us.” It was easier to never really talk about anything but only see each other every so often.
After the concert, she confessed she had disappeared—a point I was already confused on, having now to consider that these brief “pauses” were deliberate—because she was worried she was pregnant. She had not been but was already prepared to get an abortion. I was more than shocked and even a bit vexed. I knew we both shared the same political views on abortion and very much believed in abortion access for all, not to mention that we both made it quite clear neither of us were interested in having kids. But I didn’t get why I was finding out about this later.
I asked why she didn’t come to me and pleaded that she knew she could talk to me about anything—that I was there to support her fully. She wouldn’t look at me and told me she was too afraid to find out my reaction; this was all she could put into words through all her anxious shame of the moment. I tried to understand, tried to trace this fear back to some unguarded moment when I might have alluded to not being supportive of her in such a situation. I did not understand, I thought she liked and trusted me, I thought she knew me.
We continued to see each other for a few more months, disappearances and all, but it never came up again.
The true crime of empathy
The thoughts stayed with me and my best reaction was to try to understand where she was coming from, where this fear to approach me came from. The best of me could only “step into her shoes.” Isn’t that the true crime of empathy? Every time we get close to it, we miss the target entirely.
I knew she had had abortions in the past. I knew I would have been there for her, to help financially, to help her rest, to get her whatever she needed. But how was she to ever know that? Was it even possible? And is that even enough?
The problem of empathizing is that it has nothing to do with understanding someone else’s feelings. It was never about putting myself into her shoes or trying to embody a shame I could never truly feel. Rather it’s about accepting that I could never know these concerns, the feelings they bring up, the resultant memories, and how that all shapes one’s self-image. Isn’t this what makes actual empathy so horrifying and difficult? It has nothing to do with understanding, balance, experience, and everything to do with not knowing.
Empathetic feelings arise from the fear that someone else, whether we know them or not, will fall into the abyss of pain and humility that is completely unknowable to us. The closest we come to this is when we can utter “I wish I could take your pain away,” but we quickly stray from the path when we say things like “I feel bad for what you’re going through.” Our feelings and knowledge and experience mean nothing in the face of empathy.
Roe v. Wade doesn’t do anything toward fixing this problem. The (in)famous Supreme Court case did nothing to change how we view abortion, how we support those who need an abortion, how to accept abortion as a form of birth control. Above all, Roe v. Wade has done nothing to make known the instrumentalization of women’s bodies over the empty moralistic arguments that abound in headlines, comment sections, and social media. After all, many arguments against abortion rights fall back to the basic “pro-choice is selfish” thesis.
These may seem like separate pieces altogether: learning to empathize on the one hand and legal abortion on the other. However, this is precisely where both the failure of the law (along with our acceptance of it) and the limits of our so-called solidarity overlap.
Not enough men
The fact that “not enough men” have come forward to share their own relation to reproductive rights betrays the ideological presupposition that this is a women’s issue, but we’ll stand silently behind them, go with them to clinics, provide emotional and financial support when we can. This view not only abstracts the problem from the level of the social (i.e., the political), but it’s also reductive to the very antagonisms which it’s trying to fight. In short, such an ideological solidarity puts abortion and reproductive rights into a divided and gendered position—and, what’s more, ignores the instrumental use of women’s bodies as a means of free social reproduction.
As Jenny Brown points out in her book Without Apology: The Abortion Struggle Now, “as birth rates have dropped below replacement [of the labor force], they’ve started coming for our reproductive rights.” Our distanced approach to abortion rights is all too similar to the supposed apolitical argument of “I’m not very political”: It hides what we’re willing to accept of the situation as it is today, that is, the need for a gendered division of labor where one is worth less than the other.
Roe v. Wade simply focused on access to safe abortions. As we know more than ever, “access” is a euphemism in health care terms to take focus away from availability and affordability. And yet we’ve all acted like it is enough. Roe v. Wade isn’t enough—even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite her questionable politics and patronizing racism, said so. This word “enough” comes up a lot, though.
What is “enough?” How many men speaking and acting in solidarity is “enough?”
“Enough” seems to point beyond what our political imagination has projected onto what being pro-choice means. Women’s full reproductive rights are not simply a matter of choice. As Brown argues, “this removes abortion from the realm of political power and narrows it to an individual decision.” Some studies have shown that the distance between pro-life and pro-choice isn’t very long at all. In fact, pro-choice can only ever be a reference back to pro-life logic: The terminology of “life” versus “choice” is heavily weighted to always and already mean one is choosing against a life. To be “pro-choice” is to be the exception to pro-life, which already accounts for it. Pro-life and pro-choice are two sides of the same coin and the Roe v. Wade decision limited reproductive rights to this.
The inability to go beyond “pro-choice,” to have more than exceptions, to have full reproductive rights also points to the limitations not just of the rights being granted but the limitations of how the law itself functions. It would appear that, despite having a precedent set that allows women free access to safe abortions, the law that protects these rights cannot itself be called upon. This is what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the “prohibited prohibition”: the law may prohibit some act but we are prohibited from calling upon the law itself to intervene.
This is precisely what James Baldwin had in mind when he made the argument that “white men invented the crime of rape, with the specific intention of castrating and hanging” Black men. What Baldwin points to is not a division in what rape means, but in who is allowed to claim stake to the law: In this case, white men are allowed to make the charge of rape. This is not so different today and why so many victims of assault don’t report their cases to the police: They’re confronted with doubt and asked inane things like “Are you sure it was rape?” and “How much did you have to drink?” The crime is obscured or one’s rights are denied. This is a proper example of prohibiting, limiting, the law.
These two things are almost always talked about in the same breath as well, but it’s important to explain why these topics get raised together. Rape is not synonymous with abortion because it’s a proper exception by which abortion is somehow more OK. Rape comes up as a constitutive topic of abortion because rape is the same crime as taking away reproductive rights, in such a way that the latter ensures and justifies (or, rather, obscures the crime of) the former, a way for the law to only ever be self-referential.
What hope is there truly?
So, if the law is not “enough” and our rights are not “enough,” what hope is there truly?
It’s all too easy to look at efforts of state control of reproductive rights as a time when we’ve heard all too much from men. Although there is more than a kernel of truth in that, the point is that we’ve been hearing too much from the wrong men. Perhaps this betrays an unfortunate fact, too: Not enough men truly believe in full reproductive rights. Maybe this points to concerns over the loss of free or cheap labor, or an inversion in power dynamics. But the only way of ever knowing the truth of that is for those who have benefited from reproductive rights—those who have known partners that had abortions or birth control that helped their lives—to sound off, to get involved, to take “pro-choice” further.
Someone raised a concern to me recently regarding some political work, saying “We shouldn’t hide our politics.” Our politics, however, is not something we can hide: Not even the self-proclaimed “apolitical” can hide their politics. Like it or not, whatever it is we are doing is our politics. Unfortunately, if we want to showcase any politics, we must act.
To echo one slogan, abortion is self-defense. As a man, I have been saved from many situations in which I would have been powerless, so much that I could have damaged others along the way. A few of them I knew about, a few I didn’t, but I was saved from both a fatherhood which I was never ready for and the waiting, the anxiety, and the silent shame that millions upon millions of us don’t know is happening to the other half.
Bottom line: Reproductive rights is a women’s issue, a men’s issue, a family issue, a labor issue, a social issue, an economic issue, a political issue, inseparable in any distinct way from every other issue. It helps to widen the focus of concern to embrace all that affects the quality of our lives.
Originally published in People’s World.
Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based out of Detroit. He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.