Abortion Law & the Free Pass for Men

What foes of abortion really mean when they talk about “responsibility”

It’s quite a time we live in. Conservative-led legislatures keep passing more and more punitive laws to restrict abortion. Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio seemingly set the bar high with their heartbeat laws. Then Alabama blew past them by criminalizing abortion without exceptions for rape or incest, as male lawmakers endorsed the premise that if God didn’t intend a woman to bear her rapist’s child, she wouldn’t get pregnant. (The spectacularly dim Alabama Senator Clyde Chambliss calls this the “wisdom of the Heavenly Father.”)

Most abortion opponents I know wouldn’t take things quite that far. Instead, they tend to repeat a refrain that sounds less harsh and more logical: It’s all about personal responsibility. Some approach this claim with piety (and a little scorn), opining that people must always be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. Others take a seemingly gentler tack, professing sympathy for those who feel unable to bear and care for a child, while still arguing that they must accept their responsibility even so because “the deed is done.”

Off the cuff, that may sound eminently reasonable, but only if you don’t think about it too closely: the truth is that these laws demand “responsibility” from women only and, in turn, punish only women.

These laws require nothing of cis men before or after sexual activity, and do not punish them after an abortion — which millions of men have encouraged, begged for, or browbeat women into — even though men are every bit as responsible for each pregnancy. (That sperm is still required for fertilization is basic biology even a Republic senator can understand.) Most American men are allowed to revel in the luxury of knowing that they can literally walk away from responsibility, not just physically, but emotionally and fiscally. I don’t see anyone rushing to pass laws addressing that.

Society knows it, too, can walk away from a baby the second it’s born, no matter its situation, because responsibility is not required of us as a collective. Doubt that this is true? Just take a look at the rates for poverty and food insecurity in the US. And consider how many legislators continually try to curb things like food stamps, access to health care, and maternal/paternal leave. (We are a kind of a laughingstock in this regard.)

If responsibility was the real issue, these laws would have a companion clause criminalizing any male whose sexual activity leads to an abortion, plus a caveat requiring that men provide physical and financial care for all children who arise from that activity, regardless of situation. Such a law would be dead on the floor before anyone could vote.

Why? Because we don’t treat men that way; as a culture, we continually offer passes for men and require things of women.

If you believe that you are taking the ethical high road by framing the debate in terms of personal responsibility, you need to face head-on what you are actually saying. Unless you are equally willing to penalize men for pregnancies and charge them with a crime when a pregnancy ends in abortion, you’re simply placing the burden of men’s behavior — and society’s — on the shoulders of women alone.


David Valdes is a Cuban-American playwright and author. He’s written about family, race, and LGBTQ issues for the New York Times, Boston Globe, and HuffPo.

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