Do men have ‘moral standing’ in the abortion debate?

I expect the right-wing blogosphere will be all over this op-ed by feminist Leslie Cannold.

The problem – at least for me – isn’t the fact that she supports a bill currently before the Victorian Parliament to formally decriminalise abortions that occur in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Rather, the problem is that Cannold argues that

Men lack moral standing in the abortion debate — indeed are guilty of moral arrogance — when they push for control over a procedure they’ll never have to have because they can’t get pregnant.

Except that she’s serious, Cannold’s op-ed reads like a parody of self-centred feminism, with its characteristic refusal to accept that any of women’s interests can be put up for negotiation (if they complete the pregnancy, the rest of us must pay for their maternity leave, childcare, cover for their absences at work, and then pay and promote them as if nothing had happened).

Nowhere in her article does Cannold even contemplate the idea that killing an unborn child is morally problematic, even if (and here I agree with her) a convincing case can be made that, all things considered, this can be the better overall option in the earlier part of pregnancy. You don’t need to be a potential murder victim to stand up for the people others are proposing to kill.

The evidence of women in the abortion debate will usually be stronger than that of men, because as Cannold says they have a range of experiences that men don’t. But the moral standing of women to participate in the debate is the same as men’s.

36 thoughts on “Do men have ‘moral standing’ in the abortion debate?

  1. There’s a simple solution to the question of who has moral standing and that is to not treat abortion as a moral issue. It should be should of simply as a medical issue, like an appendectomy.


  2. I also note that her analogy about “how would men feel if there were women’s groups campaigning against vasectomy” is superficial at best. There is a perfect female analogue (tubal ligation) and last time I looked there weren’t any men’s groups campaigning against it.


  3. I find “moral standing” such an absurd concept. It isn’t a court, anybody can have an opinion on anything. What if a woman is infertile, or if a woman has passed menopause, do they also lack moral standing in the abortion debate?


  4. Deveny is usually amusing, in an outrageous unreasonable way, but she doesn’t really try to be a serious commentator, does she? Cannold, however, apart from being an abortion partisan (“spokeswoman for Pro-Choice Victoria”, according to the Age), is also a bio-ethicist and an academic, and so should understand how to mount a proper argument and make proper use of evidence.


  5. “(tubal ligation) and last time I looked there weren’t any men’s groups campaigning against it.”

    Apart from the Catholic Church:

    “Equally to be excluded [as morally permissible], as the teaching authority of the Church has frequently declared, is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman” (Humanae Vitae, 14)

    And you might have your work cut out getting your tubes tied in a lot of Muslim countries, not least the one to our near north.


  6. Hmm an uncharacteristically bad piece of hyperbole from Cannold. I wouldn’t class her as the same as Deveny at all and generally like her work. One of the few bio-ethicists who is libertarian rather than a nanny-stater.


  7. Any statistics here on bias? It seems to me that the majority of the nutty right to lifers tend to be male, and I’m really surprised about how much opposition this bill is getting in parliament (also almost exclusively male). Given this, and given that the procedure obviously affects women more than men, I don’t think the argument is clear cut at all (in both directions — Cannold is obviously extreme in one direction, and those that deny the obvious about who it affects most are extreme in the other direction — I don’t see why women shouldn’t have a greater say in the debate than men given this situation).
    Speaking of bias, I also object to the term “unborn child”. This implies that something is a child before it is born. You might happen to believe that, but lots of people don’t.


  8. Rajat
    Having browsed her website there is almost nothing in there which she says on her key areas of research which I strongly disagree with. Obviously don’t agree with her views on schools but I never said she was a libertarian but a libertarian in her views on bioethics whereas most bioethicists are as bad as the Pope. I don’t seek out her views on tax either, whatever they may be. She is even willing to dissent with her fellow lefties on some thing like Iraq and multiculturalism, which suggests an independent thinker. She is an old fashioned liberal feminist rather than one of those silly new wave feminists like Naomi Wolf. No comparison at all to an irrationalist like Deveny.

    More on topic, I can understand her frustration over the abortion issue. Abortion isn’t problematic at all – it’s about evicting a trespasser from your property.


  9. If your the male that is to share in the upbringing then perhaps you may get a small say, proportional to the future effort required, but otherwise it really is non of your, societies or (in my view) the pope’s dam business.

    Like it or not, before the child is born it belongs to the mother not society and if she wants to terminate her contribution so be it, the males contribution before birth has been what, one little sperm.

    Societies contribution?


  10. Jason, where does place you in the issue of late term abortion then? Does a 30 week resident gain a better claim than a 12 week one by virtual of the equivalent of “adverse possession”? Or are you going to be consistent and say that any fetus, no matter how normal or far advanced, should be subject to the whim of the landlord? Actually, I assume you are not being all that serious.


  11. I agree with you Andrew that Cannold’s piece is lacking in a certain logic but I have a different perspective.

    In our society, currently, women are able to get an abortion if they so choose. Men cannot get abortions for the obvious reason that they cannot have children. Because of this men never have to make the moral choice as to whether they should keep or abort a fetus. Men may be able to argue or persuade one way or the other but they never have to make that choice.

    My question then is, what constitutes moral standing? If you, like me, think that a society based on classical liberal principles is the way to go, then you must accept that this particular moral dilemma (or choice) exists only for women, however much influence men would like to think they have on that choice.

    So then, is it possible for one to make a truly moral judgement about a choice that you have no prospect of ever having to actually make?

    I’m not entirely convinced by this argument but I suspect it is what a lot of women are trying to express when they say that men should have no say in the abortion debate.


  12. Just looks like another person who wants to stop those who disagree with her from contributing to the debate.

    Whether they have ‘moral standing’ (whatever that is) or not, the last time I checked we still lived in a democracy and all people were entitled to contribute to any debate.

    The whole thing is ‘ad hominem’: ‘you’re a male, therefore you cannot contribute to this debate’. So much for judging arguments rather than the people making them.

    Men may not ever have the chance to have to make this choice for themselves, but surely they are allowed to express concern about the fate of unborn human beings?


  13. Sally – Like Christian, I find the whole idea of ‘moral standing’ to be very dubious. Indeed, I think it is an attempt, like vilification laws and assertions of ‘rights’, to shut down debates people on the left don’t like – though this one could easily backfire on them, since few of them have any idea what it is like to be poor, a refugee, Indigenous etc.

    As I suggest in my original post, I think particular kinds of experience can create powerful evidence not available to others without that experience, or permission to break taboos (eg Noel Pearson can say things about Aborigines that white people cannot).

    But in this case views on abortion are just a sub-set of moral views about the worth of human life, which should not necessarily be suspended just because a baby would be inconvenient. Only sociopaths lack views on this subject, and some of the most important moral debates occur on the borders of when taking life is and is not appropriate such as euthanasia, war and abortion.


  14. A long standing feature of the abortion debate is that people (whether they are pro or contra) often seem willing to apply to this matter arguments, or standards thereof, that they would not accept in any other context. So let’s temporarily look away from the specific case of abortion and look at the more general proposition that is being implied.
    P: The only people who are entitled to make judgements about doing [X] are the people who are now, or in the future might be, in a situation where they are tempted to do [X].
    Who will endorse this proposition when [X]=”massacring defenseless civilians to achieve a military objective”?
    Or when [X]=”shooting a deranged man waving a knife around on Bondi beach to save the innocents nearby”?
    Or when [X]=”shooting a fleeing armed robber in the back after he has robbed you”?
    In such cases, only soldiers and police and security guards are ever likely to be in the situations where they are tempted to make such decisions. And yet other members of the community consider themselves entitled to make moral judgements — and for that matter, legal judgements — about such acts.


  15. Yes, good on you alanc – the argument proposed by Cannold doesn’t stand up.

    But then again, we’re both men, so what would we know! 🙂


  16. Andrew Norton

    I would not describe myself as left wing and I still fail to see what right men have in setting rules for a decision a women has to make. The removal of the right to chose has a profound effect on the quality of life for women but in the end very little effect on the quality of life for men.

    Like it or not there is a difference between the sexes, in my view it can be argued that the problem with feminists is they try to pretend there isn’t.


  17. Charles – If it was simply about the woman there would be no issue, but it isn’t and that’s why this cannot be reduced to a personal choice. There is, quite properly in my view, a very strong presumption against taking human life. Nobody can just choose to take a life without any moral qualms. This presumption can be overturned in some cases – Alan gives a few examples in comment 17. A similar case can be made at least for early term abortion. But to completely dismiss these concerns is in my view to be blind to significant moral issues.


  18. “a very strong presumption against taking human life.”

    1) I think you are failing to take notice of the common assumption that there is no taking of human life, so there is no moral issue involved. If people really did consider it a human life they would go to massive lengths to stop the killing, as we do in many other areas within our power (e.g., brain-dead people kept on life support for years; old people we spend millions on so that can live a few months more etc. ).

    2) A lot of the arguments have nothing to do with taking lives or not. I believe a basic premise is that restricting abortion doesn’t necessarily stop or even reduce the number of abortions happening, it simply makes them more dangerous, and more people die as a result. Thus the argument that needs to made even if it is assumed that the foetus does have some rights (which isn’t the case), is whether less death would actually occur by keeping the restrictions.


  19. Andrew

    I don’t believe in a personal god, so I don’t see morality as some god given rule handed down on tablets. If you get past that you then have to find a solid foundation to base morality on.

    We eat animals, we condemn many species to extinction, we fight, we kill each other(war), we lie and we destroy our environment. Faced with that I would be very interested in your definition of morality.

    In my view morality is nothing more than a set of rules that make it possible for humans to do what they do, that is relying on each other to create very complex systems.

    Based on that solid foundation ( in my view) there is only one question, when does the destruction of a human life become a threat to a society. Clearly never is not the answer, that answer prevents wars (as an aside I can’t see the weasel words in “Thou shalt not kill”).

    In other words, if morality effects the good running of the social system then is it a question for all, if it does not then it is a personal question, some object to eating meat, some to war and some to abortion. But quite frankly I don’t think anyone has the right to press their personal morality on others. In my moral framework it is immoral.

    Leslie Cannold got it right.


  20. Charles – I hardly think that people need to be religious to be concerned about abortion (I am an atheist, for instance), even if some religions do sway people towards defining conception as the point at which life must be protected. Technological changes have pushed further and further back the point at which babies can survive outside the womb, and I think in the process greatly weakened the claimed distinction between a foetus and a baby. In my morality, the onus is very much on those who want to take life to show why it should be done. In the case of abortion, the moral fuzziness created by the undeveloped state of the foetus, the consequences for the child if it was to be born to a parent or parents unable or unwilling to care for it properly, and the consequences for its parents, make me inclined to support policies such as those currently before the Victorian Parliament. But I don’t think a woman’s moral claims to control her own body automatically trump the interests of the foetus/baby. These moral claims are a factor, but not an over-riding one.


  21. Andrew
    I have often wondered how one can logically justify our love of things small, across all mammals ( I present the sadness I felt when I learnt a baby whale didn’t make it to illustrate my point) yet our ability to stress out other adults.

    I find it hard to step back and be rational when it comes to babies and I’m a male of the species, I don’t think I can hope to imagine what it does to a women when she finds the need to do what nature clearly programs her not to, as an example of adults stressing out adults I present anti abortion activist further stressing out the women involved.


  22. I find it absurd that there has been more grief for the death of Collette the whale than there has been sympathy for the estimated 100,000 babies who are deliberately murdered in the womb each year.

    Moreover, given that the Victorian bill proposed amounts to open slather, if a woman is entitled to abrogate her responsibility and abort for convenience at any time (rape makes up a tiny proportion of abortions, so I will discount that scenario for the moment), then why shouldn’t men be able to walk away and not pay child support when they decide it is no longer convenient for them?

    The only abortion I could possibly consider permitted under the law (and it would be with reluctance, given the fact that we are dealing with a life-and-death issue) would be within the first trimester (less than 12 weeks) in cases of rape. If it were the case that continuning the pregnancy could cause the death of the mother, then that would also be justifiable – but often when the case arises at late-term, you can overcome that by inducing birth or performing a C-section.

    Abortion for contraceptive purposes is wrong and compromises the position of those dealing with a rape pregnancy.


  23. N
    I have no problem with your morality, where I have problem is you trying to force it on others. I would even have problems with you forcing it onto your wife (if married), but I won’t be running around asking people to make laws to prevent it.

    A civilized society will not have women obtaining abortions in back allies, in my view a child should only be born if it is wanted, but once again I won’t be running around asking for laws.

    You logic with regard to men is in my view seriously flawed, once born a child raised properly is best for a society, why should society not insist the genetic farther take some responsibility?

    You know if you really want a society full of women that don’t want abortions, allow them, genetic selection will do it’s job.


  24. Charles,

    By your logic, I suppose you think parents should legally be allowed to have their children put down until, say, they start school, since it wouldn’t be a threat to society? This seems no more arbitrary than to say they should be allowed to have their foetuses/babies aborted up to the point they are delivered from the womb

    This is not to say abortions should necessarily be banned completely but, as Andrew says, the issue is more complex than your patronising attitude gives it credit for.


  25. No Me, once there born thats it, they become part of society. And birth is easy to define, we have separation.

    And you quite right the issue is quite complex and it is about time the anti abortion crowd realized it. I’m taking an extreme position, but no more extreme than say, N above.


  26. Andrew your belief’s about personhood are very clear so there is no point in attempting to argue with you about that. Just as it is clear that you have resolved the conflict of ‘rights’ between the woman and her foetus in your mind, whatever your aside about women’s control of her body and interests of the foetus/baby.

    If to say that some group of beings have moral standing is to say that, as a moral matter, their well-being must be given some consideration, then the point about men having moral standing in this matter is to say that their well being is affected by a woman’s decision to abort. You afford men rights in this matter, that they have justified claims to the protection of their important interests. Those interests appear to be, that men are so hurt by women having abortions, (because men believe a third party, foetuses, are murdered by selfish women who don’t want to be inconvenienced by a child) that they have the right to override women’s rights to control their own bodies and lives. That is the right to refuse women an abortion, on the grounds that their (men’s) well being must be given consideration. As abortion cannot be partial, there is no middle ground here, the fetus is non spontaneously aborted or it is not, consideration of men’s concerns about it can only have one outcome, refusal of abortion to women. Individual women must be denied the right.

    Is it that you don’t grasp the fact that abortion is not just about a women’s right to control her own body

    Against your selfish feminist argument, (God how that infuriates as a woman living in a society where women still do not have equity with men,) a more enlightened and balanced view of women and their rights as identified by feminist theory from an Indian medico ethicist.

    “The feminist ethics framework views the situation of the pregnant woman considering abortion as part of a social system. A central moral feature of the argument is that pregnancies take place within women’s bodies and have profound effects on their lives (3, 17). The other central argument is grounded in women’s status – their social and family roles and responsibilities, their secondary status in most spheres of activity and male-centred work cultures and employment policies.
    Within this framework, it argues, women should be judge of whether abortion is an appropriate response to a pregnancy. It is inappropriate to lay down abstract rules for when a decision to abort or not is “right”. Woman’s deliberations will involve considerations of their commitments to the needs and interests of everyone concerned, including the foetus (2). Women should be considered the full moral agents, responsible for making moral decisions.”

    Feminists do not argue that there is no difference between men and women, rather that there ought be no difference between men and women’s rights.

    Or Ayn Rand: “A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.” The moral standard to be applied, Ayn Rand has shown, is that of man’s life and what is “required by man’s nature for his proper survival.” The fundamental condition for man’s survival–the freedom to use his rational faculty to maintain and enjoy his life. Thus, a pregnant woman, like every other individual, has the right to determine her own destiny and the destiny of her body, to choose what constitutes her own best interest and private happiness and to work for its achievement, so long as she respects the same rights in others.

    Ayn Rand Centre

    Which of course brings us back to personhood, as determined by men.


  27. If women don’t want to get pregnant, then they shouldn’t have intercourse. It indeed is THEIR CHOICE – and they know that no form of protection is fail-safe.

    It is time that people took responsibility rather than blaming others, in this case being women hiding behind infantile feminist attacks on the mythical patriarchy.


  28. Dennis
    Mankind has known the how for a long time. Sermons have come and gone. I don’t think yours is going to change much. Public policy has to deal with reality.


  29. Thanks to Ros, in post #30, for appending to what she calls Andrew’s “selfish feminist” argument an exquisite example of an unreasonable and self-undermining feminist argument.

    “Is it that you don’t grasp the fact that abortion is not just about a women’s right to control her own body”, Ros asks rhetorically — when the fact that other vitally important things are at stake besides women’s rights over their own bodies is PRECISELY the point that anti-abortionists make, and a point which Andrew (despite his admitted pro-abortion sympathies) has acknowledged in some of the preceding posts.


  30. “Abortion for contraceptive purposes is wrong and compromises the position of those dealing with a rape pregnancy” – N post #26

    “If women don’t want to get pregnant, then they shouldn’t have intercourse…It is time that people took responsibility rather than blaming others…” – Dennis, post #31

    In other words, dear readers, abortion is only morally wrong when a woman has had sex for pleasure. Mind you Dennis, if we women must eschew intercourse then I am sure many will welcome cunnilingus instead.

    I recall reading a common theme in the compulsory-birthists’ submissions to the Senate Community Affairs Committee on the RU486 discussion. A high number were asserting that RU486 (and abortions in general) permitted “irresponsible” sexual behaviour of women and men and this was their reason for opposing the availablity of the drug. That is, the threat of pregnancy should deter non-procreative sex and control or restrict sexual behaviour. Some of these people felt that this would impact on men and women alike but all seemed to oh-so-conveniently overlook the biological reality that even if he paying child support or not, a man can still walk away from a pregnancy and the pain of childbirth. Hence compulsory pregnancy is to punish women—and only women—for *enjoying* sex.

    In this instance, we need to reframe the debate on abortion. Because the debate is not about abortion, it’s about sex. And, especially, it is about women having sex.


  31. A more interesting questions is if the man decides to go for an abortion but the woman disagrees, should he be liable for child support?

    Any woman who gets pregnant has the choice to avoid the financial responsibility of being a parent. Men are not given this choice.


  32. men are plenty given the choice – it’s called abstinence or safe s*x!!!
    men know that they can’t make the choice re abortion or having the baby when they start shagging so they have to live with the consequences.
    It takes two to tango.

    re my earlier post, having read other responses I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “moral standing”.


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