Marcus Lee is a third-year sociology major at Morehouse College and one of Rewire’s youth voices.
Some of the most dangerous anti-woman work is done at the hands of so-called men’s rights activists (MRAs). Initially organizing themselves in the ’70s as a response to what they claimed was the rise of “misandry,” MRAs push for a more patriarchal society—one that’s organized by “natural” gender roles and supposedly gender-blind but actually male-dominated state governance. For example, A Voice for Men, an online men’s rights organization founded in 2009, has as the first goal of its mission statement the exposure of “misandry and gender-centrism on all levels in our culture.” Here, the group immediately associates gendered analyses of society with the hatred of men, hence promoting disregard for and ignorance of the suppression of women.
Central to the political agenda of MRAs is floating the idea that men somehow have a “right” to an abortion, or more accurately a right to interfere with a woman’s right to an abortion. MRAs argue that women’s autonomy is directly oppressive to men because men are disallowed input as to whether or not women should give birth. Thus, they argue that the state should intervene by forcing women to consult men before they can legally abort a pregnancy or that women or doctors should be held legally accountable to men after an abortion has taken place, usurping their right to self-determine.
Unfortunately, this hazardous ideology has been taken seriously and supported by a few lawmakers. For example, in 2009 Ohio state Rep. John Adams (R-Sidney) sponsored HB 252, which would have assigned men direct control over women’s bodies by requiring doctors to receive written consent from the father of the fetus before a woman could have an abortion. Similarly, under an anti-racist, anti-sexist guise, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) sponsored HR 447 in this current session of Congress to “prohibit discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex or race, and for other purposes.” Here, Franks attempts, ironically, to imagine a reputable justification for control over women’s bodies by questioning their
motivations for an abortion and by situating himself, doctors, and men in general as social justice deputies.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Given that these efforts are seeping into multiple state and federal legislatures, the rhetoric and strategies employed by MRAs must be taken seriously. They are deeply problematic and counterproductive to women’s liberation and gender equity. However, they also pose problems to racial equity and sexual freedom. Through a specific examination of MRAs pushing for their own set of “abortion rights,” it is possible to highlight the intersecting bigotries embedded in the men’s rights movement.
Acknowledging how oppressions rely on one another helps to deconstruct them. Looking through this intersectional lens reveals that the argument for an alleged men’s right to an abortion relies on racist conceptions of bodies as property, and heterosexist, traditionalist ideas about female eroticism. It is important to note that the men’s rights push for
abortion rights is representative, not exemplary—that is, “men’s abortion rights” initiatives should be understood simply as puzzle pieces within the larger, problematic universe of the men’s rights movement.
First and foremost, men’s “right to an abortion” is predicated on the idea that children—and fetuses—are pieces of property jointly owned by men and women; their arguments insinuate that if children are property, then it follows that it is unfair for a woman to have complete control over whether or not a potential piece of property over which she shares ownership with a man materializes. This conception of children is evident in MRA-influenced legislation. For example, Franks’ HR 447,
the “Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act” (PRENDA), would authorize civil actions for verifiable money damages for injuries and punitive damages by fathers and maternal grandmothers. In this way of thinking, children, unborn fetuses, and women’s uteruses become properties that can be assigned a dollar amount by men who moreover exert ownership. Because the fetus and the uterus are inextricable, women are necessarily implicated by the conception of children and the fetus as property.
Additionally, conceiving of children as property is a direct strike against the fight for racial equity as it comes out of an anti-Black ethos. The abolition of slavery should have been accompanied by the total deracination of each constituent part of its ethos. In other words, if we think of slavery as a poisonous cake, we shouldn’t have just thrown out the cake; we should have thrown out each ingredient that led to the creation of the cake with the understanding that each intentionally added to the poison. Any time any of these ingredients are used in another recipe, the end product is dangerous. One of the main ingredients of slavery is the idea of people as property—Black bodies were things to be bought and sold among people who believed that they had ownership over them. In order to avoid reproducing any facet of the catastrophe that was slavery, the idea that people are property must be wholly eradicated for any and everybody.
Meanwhile, MRAs reproduce the ideology of slavery with their conception of children as property; consequently, working to reproduce an environment that is conducive to Black marginality and suffering. Thus, MRAs push for the right to an abortion is a significant obstruction to the struggle for gender and racial equity.
Furthermore, men’s “right” to an abortion is predicated on an assumed traditional, male-centered sexuality where sex is defined by vaginal penetration, consent is simplified to yes or no, and women are subjected to expectations of compulsory availability and heterosexuality. Under this view, MRAs suggest that men are powerless with regard to impregnating women, and therefore need state intervention in order to remedy power imbalances.
In reality, understandings of sexuality should be complicated through a queer paradigm in order to make for an environment that is conducive to greater sexual freedom for women and men. Vaginal penetration is not the only form of sexuality to be performed.
Consent cannot be simplified to a yes or no—it is an ongoing negotiation of sexual practices, likes and dislikes, and desires and distastes. Sex may include the desire or the lack thereof to have a child, and the necessary precautions should be taken to make both parties comfortable with the encounter and its potential outcomes, including but not limited to condoms, spermicide, and non-penetrative sex. When consent is simplified to a yes or no, the vulnerability and comfort level of the passive partner during the encounter are disregarded.
Lastly, women cannot and should not be understood through a lens of compulsory availability and heterosexuality—women are indeed diverse people with different sexual desires, different life goals, and different attractions. They cannot be reduced to targets of male (hetero)sexual desire. When they are, queer people are unfairly placed on the periphery and non-queer people are the targets of uncomfortable encounters.
As they are used by MRAs in arguing for men’s “right” to abortion and beyond, these assumptions together absolve men of all responsibility from necessary negotiation regarding sexual practices. This not only works to disenfranchise women, but also obstructs sexual freedom for women and men.
Finally, the logic of MRAs simply fails. They seem to employ a biological deterministic logic, arguing that if both men and women contribute to the biology of the fetus, then both should help determine what will happen to it. However, suddenly this biological deterministic logic is abandoned when examining female biology: Using the same lens, if the choice to have or not to have a child significantly affects the biology of a woman, then she should be able to make that decision for herself. MRAs conveniently adopt biological determinism, and then disregard it when it no longer works for them, consequently undermining their own argument.
In the end, the logic behind sexism always falls apart.
MRAs depend on sexism, racism, and heterosexism to work toward men’s “right” to abortion and beyond. Relying on ideas of human bodies as property and female sexuality as necessarily traditional, heterosexual, and available, they create a severely dangerous logic aimed toward men exerting even greater control over women’s bodies. If this analysis isn’t convincing enough, one would need to only look toward the blog posts on the A Voice for Men website—one of which romanticizes racial terror by arguing that “misogynist” is the “new n-word.” Highlighting these intersections is important, because doing so heightens the potential for intra-community coalition building within social justice movements.