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Pennsylvania abortion case raises question of choice for men

By Glenn Sacks and Dianna Thompson
web posted August 12, 2002

John Stachokus, the Pennsylvania would-be father who lost his bid to block his ex-girlfriend's abortion, has found himself in a position familiar to millions of American men: He has a large personal stake in a decision in which he is not allowed to take any part. His wishes are irrelevant. When it comes to reproduction, in America today women have rights and men merely have responsibilities.

When a woman wants a child and a man does not, the woman can have the child anyway -- and demand 18 years of child support from the father. This remains true even if the father had made it clear that he did not want to have children, and even if the woman had previously agreed to respect his wishes.

For decades, leading feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League have argued that women should have reproductive rights because nobody should be able to tell them what to do with their own bodies. Thus the slogan "My Body, My Choice."

But the sacrifices required to pay 18 years of child support should not be discounted, either. The average American father works a 51-hour work week, one of the longest in the industrialized world. It is men, overwhelmingly, who do our society's hazardous jobs. Nearly 50 American workers are injured every minute of the 40-hour work week. On average, every day 17 die -- 16 of them male. Couldn't men who work long hours or do hazardous jobs -- and who suffer the concomitant physical ailments and injuries -- argue that their bodies are on the line, too? Where is their choice?

NOW and NARAL were legitimately concerned that the Pennsylvania anti-abortion injunction, which was issued on a temporary basis last Wednesday and dissolved the following Monday, could have established a precedent for giving men and the government control over an important aspect of women's lives. But when a woman forces a man to be responsible for a child only she wants, is she not exercising control over his life? And when the massive government child-support apparatus hounds the reluctant father for financial support, takes a third of his income and jails him if he comes up short, isn't the government exercising control over his life? Advocates of reproductive choice for men -- the right of an unmarried man to sign away his parenting rights and responsibilities upon learning of an unwanted pregnancy -- have a legitimate claim, based on the same arguments that feminists have used to support their case for choice for women.

When the situation is reversed and the woman does not want to have a child and the man does -- as is the case with Stachokus and his ex-girlfriend, Tanya Meyers -- once again, women have rights and men do not. A woman who doesn't want her child can terminate the pregnancy against the father's wishes, or put their child up for adoption, sometimes without the father's permission. In some states, she can even return the baby to the hospital within a week of birth. More than 1 million American women legally walk away from motherhood every year.

Perhaps, as some have argued, Stachokus was using his legal maneuvers as a way to exercise control over the ex-girlfriend who broke up with him. More likely he was simply a proud papa-to-be. Maybe he imagined his child to be a little daddy's girl, or a son he would proudly raise to be a man. Or perhaps he is just a stand-up guy who wanted to live up to what he sees as his responsibilities.

Even if Stachokus had persuaded Meyers to have their child, he probably would not have been allowed to be a meaningful part of his child's life. Meyers does not want to marry or stay with him. Legal precedents -- and a stubbornly held but baseless cultural notion that children fare better with their mothers -- suggest that, even though he was willing to take full or partial custody, he would have had little chance of getting it. Many unwed and divorced fathers face a difficult struggle to remain a part of their children's lives.

Custodial mothers frequently violate fathers' visitation rights, and courts do little to enforce them. Some custodial mothers move hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their children's fathers, and it is frequently difficult for these dads to maintain regular contact with their kids.

Stachokus may have ended up like the hundreds of thousands of American fathers who love children they are not able or allowed to see, and whose suffering is ignored by a society that seems capable only of denigrating fathers.

John, whatever move you made, you never had a chance. Welcome to modern American fatherhood.

Glenn Sacks writes about gender issues from the male perspective. He can be reached at Glenn@GlennSacks.com. Dianna Thompson is the founder and executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. She can be contacted by e-mail at DThompson2232@aol.com. This column first appeared in Newsday (8/7/02)

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