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An Open Letter to Dalton Conley

by Carole Joffe
Recently, Dalton Conley, a professor of sociology at NYU, published a controversial op-ed in the New York Times, arguing that men should have to right to veto a woman's abortion, if he is willing to commit to raising the child that would result from that pregnancy. In this Open Letter, Longview Senior Fellow Carole Joffe spells out the numerous ways in which Conley's proposal is misguided.

Dear Dalton Conley,

Most of the responses to your recent New York Times op-ed, "A Man’s Right to Choose," have been eloquently stated philosophical objections to your “bottom line” argument: “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.”

My perspective is that of a sociologist who has studied the front lines of abortion provision for nearly 30 years. You begin by positioning yourself as a supporter of Roe v Wade, suggesting that a valid reason to oppose Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court is that he might "nibble away” at that decision.

Do you realize that your proposal would do far more than “nibble away” at Roe? It would create havoc in this already over-regulated and unnecessarily chaotic branch of the health care system! Your brief acknowledgment that implementing your proposal would be “problematic” hardly does justice to what in fact would occur. Here are just some of the issues that would doubtless arise with the paternal veto right you propose.

There would have to be judicial bypass machinery for those women who needed abortions to protect their lives and health. According to the Council of Scientific Affairs of the AMA, a first trimester abortion is more than ten times safer, in terms of maternal mortality, than carrying a pregnancy to term. For a small group of women, continuing a pregnancy might be life threatening; for others, there might be considerable health risks. If we have learned anything from the experience of teenagers with the judicial bypass system already in place for those who fear notifying their parents or (in some states) obtaining parental consent for an abortion, it is that this system can be difficult to access and often humiliating to confront. As the New York Times recently reported, many elected juvenile court judges across the country are recusing themselves from such assignments in order to avoid engagement with the abortion issue. When it is harder to see a judge, earlier abortions are pushed into later ones and some are prevented from occurring at all.

Your proposal would also require doctors’ documentation of threats to the life or the health of a pregnant woman. This of course would add to the cost. And given the extreme politicization of abortion within medical circles, doctors in conservative regions (and it would most likely be the red states that would adopt your proposal, if legally permitted) would likely deny an abortion in all but the most unambiguous cases. As always in the abortion wars, it would be poor women, mainly those of color, who would have the most difficulties in accessing abortions, even those procedures that were medically indicated. Your proposal would only make an already bad situation worse.

Twenty-five years of surrogate mothering in this country shows us that other things could go very wrong in the situation of coerced pregnancy that you propose. 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? These are issues that have come up -- often explosively -- in the world of surrogate parenthood, but at least there the two parties have entered into a contract. Do you really want to subject women who have not contracted to be surrogates to this kind of control from a man from whom they are now estranged?

Imagine another likely scenario. In the course of a compelled pregnancy, the man involved starts a relationship with another woman, one who is hardly enthusiastic about raising another woman's child. This “new” woman may convince the man to give up his claims to the ongoing pregnancy and have a child with her! What happens then? A child born under such sad circumstances -- to a mother who did not want to be pregnant, to a father who has changed his mind because of a new relationship -- will most likely end up in the child welfare system.

The main problem with your proposal, of course, is that it is so utterly unenforceable. When a woman presented for an abortion, how would a clinic's staff necessarily know that a man (who may or may not be the actual father of the fetus) was contesting the procedure? Would all women seeking abortions have to come to the clinic with notarized statements of approval from the alleged progenitor? Would all the men giving such consent be subject to DNA tests? The fact that this proposal would be unenforceable would not, however, prevent it from making life miserable for some pregnant women, as well as for the abortion providing facilities themselves. Given the constant litigation that surrounds this field, there doubtlessly would be numerous lawsuits brought against abortion providers for failing to comply with partner consent provisions.

Your op-ed indicates that you are unaware of the considerable efforts to involve men in the abortion process in appropriate ways, efforts which have long been part of the culture of abortion provision. In the course of visiting scores of clinics and private offices, I have been struck by their serious commitment to address the need of male partners. Many clinics offer counseling to men, either with their partners, or, if requested, even without their partners. Some facilities allow men to accompany women throughout the abortion procedure (assuming the woman agrees), and take special care to inform men about such matters as post-abortion care for their partners and the possible emotional reactions to the procedure that both parties may experience.

One of the national leaders in this effort is Claire Keyes, who has worked as an abortion counselor since 1971 and is now both counselor and director at Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in Pittsburgh. She has worked with our fellow sociologist, Arthur Shostak, who many years ago, in his book Men and Abortion, eloquently articulated the claims of men to become incorporated in various ways in the abortion process. Both she and Art, however, firmly hold to the principle that when there is a dispute between partners over the resolution of an unwanted pregnancy, the pregnant woman is the one who is entitled to make the final decision.

Claire has been trying for some time to launch a website with information about ways to involve men in the abortion process. This would be a resource for other clinics and private offices that offer abortion, as well as for men whose partners are contemplating abortion. She has had a hard time raising the cash to launch this effort. Given your deep interest in this topic, perhaps you would consider help funding this work? I am sure she would be delighted to talk to you more about this website. (claire_keyes (at) yahoo (dot) com)

Finally, I would like to comment on your op-ed as a example of “public sociology gone wrong.” Like you, I am a passionate believer in public sociology, and think its recent revitalization is one of the best things that has occurred in our discipline in years. I commend you for your many writings that are accessible to an audience beyond sociology. But in the case of this op-ed, I believe you have acted irresponsibly, and have done harm to a cause in which you profess to believe. Quite frankly, rather than seeing your op-ed as authentic public sociology, I view it as inappropriate “private sociology.” Based on your individual experience with a contested pregnancy, you are attempting to intervene in a policy arena that you seemingly know very little about.

I am aware that you have backed off somewhat since this op-ed originally appeared. I saw your appearance on Fox last week, where you said you were "only trying to be provocative” and I have seen your partial “clarification” that was posted on the Huffington site. But surely you realize, as a savvy sociologist, that an op-ed published in the leading newspaper of record in the U.S. (if not the world) will be read by more people (and reposted more frequently) than a longer, harder to understand (!) semi-retraction on the Huffington Post. It is the original op-ed, not the clarification, that is now on many "pro-life" and father’s rights websites; it is your op-ed that I easily can visualize being assigned to high school students in parochial schools and so on. I thus think you need to be held accountable for what you said in the original Times article.

Why do I think this matters? Do I think it likely that your ill-considered proposal actually will come to pass? Probably not; I am not sure that even a Supreme Court with two George W. Bush appointees would go as far as you advocate. But, I do think -- in the classical fashion of radical ideas making somewhat less radical ones appear reasonable -- that you have helped soften opposition to Alito, who “only” advocates spousal notification. You also have helped revive the possibilities of partner notification as an antiabortion strategy. With all due respect, I believe one reason your op-ed continues to generate so much buzz is not only because of what it said, but because of who said it. Various antiabortion leaders and father’s rights spokesmen have said similar things for years about male prerogatives in abortion. But you, as a known progressive in an elite East Coast university, in a field known for its liberalism, offer a kind of legitimacy (and publicity) to these arguments that longstanding partisans can’t bring. Again meaning no disrespect, why do you think that Fox, the most conservative station on cable TV, invited you to appear only two days after the op-ed was published?

Conversely, why do you think that your op-ed is causing such anguish within the community of abortion providers? This group knows the real world consequences of ill thought out policy in the realm of reproductive services. When asked by pollsters, most Americans favor spousal notification, as they do parental notification for teens. But most teens already inform their parents of plans to have an abortion, as most women tell their male partners. The problem is with the minority of teens who cannot tell their parents, out of a fear of violence or of being thrown out of the house. Many in this country, especially the young and the poor, are already living in a “post-Roe” environment; abortion is so hard to access, and culturally so stigmatized, that we already are beginning to see tragedies similar to the pre-Roe era. In two recent cases that both involved unwanted pregnancies to teenage couples, the young men induced stillbirths in their girlfriends -- one by stomping on her stomach, the other by striking her belly with a baseball bat. One of these teenagers, a Latino from Texas, is now serving a life sentence in prison for fetal homicide.

Needless to say, these cases occurred in states with parental notification laws. I have no doubts whatsoever that if partner notification (let alone your even more extreme proposal of partner consent) were to be imposed, we would have similar tragic cases where desperate women would attempt to take matters in their own hands.

In closing, I would suggest to you that the luxury and privilege you and I have, as college professors, to try out provocative ideas and “thought experiments” in the classroom take on a quite different character when we venture into the print media, especially in an internet age. I hope you will use your many media contacts to disavow the idea that men should be able to compel a woman to carry a pregnancy to term.

I look forward to your response to this letter.

Sincerely,
Carole Joffe


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