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Rights and responsibilities

By Wendy McElroy
web posted November 25, 2002

Politically correct feminists seem determined to manufacture gender conflict by packaging women and men as separate classes with antagonistic political interests.

The truth is we are all just human beings with the same political interest: to have our individual rights respected so that no one is treated differently by law than the person next door.

A recent flap in the media captures how PC feminism is fabricating conflict and then refusing to deal with the consequences.

The controversy involves Martha Burk -- the virago who blasted the privately owned Atlanta National Golf Club for not admitting women members. An old article Burk wrote for the Nov-Dec. 1997 issue of Ms. Magazine has surfaced. In the piece, entitled "The Sperm Stops Here!", Burk advocates the mandatory sterilization of men at puberty as a solution to the abortion debate.

"The Sperm Stops Here!" was allegedly intended as satire. The tip-off is Burk's lead-in: "A modest proposal ..." This refers to Jonathan Swift's famous 1729 satire "A Modest Proposal" in which he exaggerates British policies in Ireland in order to discredit them. He carries British callousness to its logical conclusion by suggesting that the English farm and eat Irish babies. Swift intends to elicit horror in his readers.

But is "The Sperm Stops Here!" really a hoax?

Kathryn Lopez in National Review and Rush Limbaugh on his radio program took the article at face value -- much to both of their embarrassment. But there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

For example, in contrast to Swift's classic piece, Burk was defending a policy -- abortion -- by ascribing absurd positions to its opponents, which they have never held. She opens by stating that both sides believe "if all babies were planned ... women wouldn't seek abortions." If abortion is outlawed, therefore, men at puberty must be chemically sterilized. Then state tribunals (and women) could plan all babies. Burk is eliciting contempt for those who question abortion.

Then, those who object to this hamfisted tactic are doubly attacked as being so stupid or humorless as to not "get" that the article is a hoax.

Consider Burk's Nov. 12 appearance on CNN's Crossfire. Co-host Tucker Carlson asked Burk about the mandatory male sterilization. Burk responded, "Hey, if they're going to restrict abortion, buddy, we've got to do it this way."

When attorney Debbie Schlussel had the audacity to take that response seriously, Burk countered, "Do you guys know what a spoof is?" Thus, she was able to make her point and retract it at the same time. Burk's point: The reproductive rights and responsibilities of women and men are in direct conflict. Her retraction: Anyone who objects doesn't have a sense of humor. Burk's "now I mean it, now I don't" approach accomplishes one goal very well: It blocks honest discussion.

A real hoax is occurring. Ironically, the position Burk ascribes to abortion opponents is actually a logical and grotesque extension of her own beliefs -- namely, that women should have all the reproductive rights while men have only responsibilities. The position she is "spoofing" is her own.

According to PC feminism, the woman alone has the right of choice in carrying a pregnancy to term while the man bears legal responsibility for child support. Yet, in paying child support, he has no guarantee of joint custody or even visitation rights.

The idea of responsibilities without rights is taken to such absurd lengths that even men who do not father children are held responsible for them. Consider the case of Morgan Wise, as chronicled by journalist Cathy Young. Blood tests proved that only one of "his" four children were actually his, yet the court ordered Wise to continue all child support payments and prohibited him from contact with the children. His role in that family is now the biological equivalent of an ATM machine. Wise's case is unfortunately hardly unique.

And, so, gender warfare becomes a political reality -- not because it exists naturally, but because it has been created. The legal system now assigns rights to women and responsibilities to men.

Disputes will always exist because the desires and claims of some people will conflict with others, especially in intimate relationships. This is natural but it is not a matter of gender. Husbands argue with wives, daughters with mothers, sisters with each other. The fact is that individuals often come into conflict. And a just resolution requires that those involved -- male or female, black or white, purple or polka-dotted -- have equal rights and responsibilities under the law. Otherwise, the law itself becomes the source of conflict.

Reproductive rights should not be uncoupled from responsibilities. I have seen the human agony caused by laws that privilege one parent over another based solely on gender, and there is nothing humorous about it. I have no doubt that individual women suffer injustice from the court system. But men suffer as a class. One travesty cannot be used to justify the other. Women and men must be equal as individuals under law in both rights and responsibilities. Only then will the suffering diminish.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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