What rights have men on abortion?

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights to declare Ireland in violation of Article 8 in the European Convention of Human Rights with regards to abortion legislation has thrust this contentious issue to the forefront of debate yet again. Following a previous article on women and abortion, several Politico readers asked about mens rights in the abortion debate. Christina Finn investigates. 

The abortion issue is largely devoted to dealing with the rights of the foetus and the mother. The rights of the father are rarely acknowledged, let alone discussed.

So what are men's rights when it comes to abortion, if any at all?

Although abortion is still illegal in Ireland 4,422 women traveled to the UK last year to have the procedure. What is not always considered is that 4,422 men were also affected by abortion.

Positive Options Ireland acknowledges that men are also affected by crisis pregnancy and they offer support and counselling services for men. Positive Options said that even if the man has a good relationship with the pregnant woman, they still can feel shocked and upset.

The crisis pregnancy organisation states: "If your relationship with the pregnant woman is difficult, or you are not together you may feel shut out. You may disagree with her about what to do next. You may also have questions about where you stand and what your rights are as a father." Men affected by abortion can avail of free counselling services and also free post abortion services also.

While the abortion issue is still a contentious one in Ireland, it exists in many other countries around the world, which may explain why men's rights when it comes to abortion are more widely discussed in these countries, as Ireland is more preoccupied in discussing women first gaining the right to abortion.

David Nolan, author of Abortion law and Politics Today discusses whether men should have a say when it comes to abortion. "The law is unequivocal on both sides of the Atlantic. UK law allows men no say in whether their partner has an abortion. Case law in the USA has confirmed that men should have no say in the matter. This has not prevented a number of men from trying," said Mr Nolan.

Judge Samuel A. Alito in the U.S challenged this in the 1991 Pennsylvania abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

In that case, Judge Alito wanted it to be a requirement that women notify their husbands when seeking an abortion. His view was rejected by the majority of the judges, and later, by the Supreme Court, which used the case as a vehicle to uphold the legality of abortion.

It is important to note that most decisions to abort are reached by both partners together. A 1984 study entitled 'Men and Abortion, Lessons, Losses and Love' (Shostak and McLouth) showed that about 90% of cases found that only five per cent of the 1,000 men they surveyed felt they had been forced into the decision; 84% felt the decision was 'a joint resolution of the matter'. There only is an issue when one partner is in disagreement with the other's decision.

David Nolan said that the suggestion that men have as much at stake as women in pregnancy and subsequently abortion should be refuted. While it is legitimate to acknowledge that men play a role in taking responsibility for contraception and childcare, "pregnancy is something that, at this stage in scientific development at any rate, only women can undergo. It affects women's bodies, their careers and their lives. An unwanted pregnancy may have a devastating effect on a woman and it is entirely legitimate for her to seek to end that pregnancy on her terms."

He said that that there perhaps is something in the argument from men whose appeal is based on the fact that they have to look after children when they are born against their wishes so they should be allowed to have a say whether they are born at all? Nolan wrote: "Is it not entirely legitimate and logically coherent to say that in such cases there should be absolutely no legal or financial comeback on those men?"

Philosopher George W. Harris discusses the ethics of abortion in his 1986 article 'Fathers and Fetuses'. Harris says that there are circumstances under which a woman's decision to have an abortion would be morally wrong because it would do harm to the father.

Arthur Brott, the infamous author on men's issues, expanded on this point, stating: "A woman can legally deprive a man of his right to become a parent or force him to become one against his will".

Speaking to Politico, Irish writer and journalist, John Waters said: "The main issue for me is the nature of the cultural mindset which on the one hand says to a young say, 22 year old man that he must be responsible, loving, devoted and dedicated to his child, but which on the other tells him that he must be able to restrain these energies until the question of 'his' child's very right to existence has been decided by or on behalf of the expectant mother."

"A mother can terminate a pregnancy and the father has no say," said Michael McCormick, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. "On the other hand, a mother is able to make a unilateral decision to keep the child and saddle the father with 18 years of child support."

John Waters asks what kind of mechanism does this society imagine the male entity to consist of? "A boy is told, in effect 'You must do the right thing, if and when this is required of you, but you must not complain if, having initiated in you the preparatory process for becoming a father, the mother then unilaterally decides that your services as a father will not be required'. What do we imagine will happen to these energies? Where will they go? Do we think that, secreted somewhere on the male body is an emotional stopcock, which can be turned off in the event that the mother decides that all bets are off?"

In 2009, an Irish woman lost her legal battle to have three of her frozen embryos released to her by Supreme Court. The 43 year old mother wanted to implant the embryos and have the babies against the wishes of her estranged husband. The couple at the centre of the case had IVF treatment in 2002. Six embryos were created, three were implanted and the woman went on to have a child. The other three embryos were frozen. Shortly afterwards the couple separated, but she wanted another child.

Marsha Garrison, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said with abortion, the courts recognize that "that embryo is in the woman's body, it's within her and can't be separated from her, so it's not just her decision-making about whether to bear a child, it's about her body."

With embryos, however, everything changes, said June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Santa Clara. "There's nothing that involves her physical integrity," she said, "and there is a notion that this would be a violation of the parenthood of the father" not to take his wishes into account.

While this Irish case, one of the first of its kind in Ireland, was mainly preoccupied with the issue of the term "unborn" and whether frozen embryos fell into that definition, it also raised the issue for men's rights, and if a woman could not create a child without the man's consent, why should she be able to abort it?

A pivotal UK court case taken in 1989 known as 'C v S' case tackled the issue of men's rights and abortion. Richard Carver attempted to prevent his former girlfriend from having an abortion. He argued that the abortion was unlawful under the 1929 Infant Life Preservation Act and that the fetus was, 'capable of being born alive'. At the time of the case, the woman was 21 weeks pregnant. The C v S case was one of the quickest in British legal history. It made its way from first hearing in the High Court to an appeal and dismissal by the law lords in just over 36 hours. The woman who was deeply affected by the case went on to have the baby and gave it to Carver to look after.

The human dimensions are the most interesting areas of exploration says John Waters. "It is pointless discussing the law, since the legislatures of virtually all European countries are fixated on a narrow definition of "rights", which means that any putative, even fundamental, rights accruing to either the child or the father are deemed secondary to the immediate entitlement of the mother to be unencumbered by the consequences of her own past choices."

The British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS) says that while their services are mainly aimed at women they are there to support men also. While they acknowledge that men are affected by abortion they clearly state that the decision lies with the woman. "Legally, it is the woman who must make the final decision about whether or not to have an abortion. However, if you and your partner are considering this option, there is a lot you can do to help her."

BPAS also provides a leaflet for men concerned about abortion entitled 'Men Too' which answers common questions men may have. It states: "We recognise that abortion can be difficult and emotional for men, as well as their partners. Men may also feel excluded from the abortion decision and process. Partners are in a unique position to provide loving support not only throughout the abortion procedure but also afterwards."

So while there are no easy answers when it comes to the discussion of abortion. Ireland strives to be a country based on equality. On that note perhaps all sides should be considered.