Like many women, I am in knots over the new Texas regulations outlawing abortion after a heartbeat is detectable — generally around the six-week mark of gestation, a time when many women do not even know that they are pregnant.
If this law stands and Roe v. Wade is effectively overturned, life will change dramatically for women of childbearing age. Three generations of women have reached sexual maturity with the power to control their own bodies and to choose when or if to have children. So I’d like to suggest a way to address the profound gender inequity of the Texas law and others that are likely to follow it, and to help protect and care for all of the unwanted children soon to be born.
Because abortions historically occurred before genetic paternity could be established, the legal, ethical, financial, and physical considerations fell almost exclusively on the pregnant woman. But those days are over. Science has given us tests that can safely and definitively determine the paternity of a fetus as early as seven or eight weeks after an egg is fertilized and implanted. It’s past time for our abortion discussions to reflect this reality.
The noninvasive prenatal paternity test could not be easier: a drop of the mother’s blood and a simple cheek swab from any potential fathers. It could become a cheap and easy (and 99.9 percent accurate) way to immediately enforce the responsibilities of sex on both parents.
Follow me through this thought experiment: What does the world look like when fathers-to-be are immediately held equally responsible for pregnancies, even in their early days, no matter whether the pregnancies are viable, unwanted, or gratefully welcomed? If we are serious about legislating the birth of all fetuses, shouldn’t we hold the father just as accountable as the mother at all phases of gestation and life? Science has gifted us with the ability to do just that, and it could be considered a massive moral leap forward. Fetuses could now be automatically entitled to receive legal and social benefits, such as inheritance and Social Security, from their fathers. Many more could know their paternal medical histories. The government could save massive amounts of money by making fathers equally responsible for raising fetuses from conception through adulthood.
How to enforce this idea? Building on Texas’s creative plan of letting anyone sue people who assist a woman in having an abortion, we can empower a volunteer brigade of concerned citizens to both swab the cheeks of any noncompliant male suspected of fertilizing an egg and sue the embryo’s father for child support if necessary. Or perhaps an easier solution would be to keep the DNA records of all newborn boys to make certain they are held equally responsible for the life created with any girl or woman they may impregnate in the future.
If women are to be required by the state to give birth, then it’s morally, socially, and economically essential that men be equally and legally tethered to the process from the very beginning.
I am guessing that most people will reflexively recoil at this idea — at the bodily intrusion of forced paternity testing, the massive government overreach, the use of citizen enforcers. But then this thought experiment illustrates a fundamental fact about abortion: that it is ultimately a woman’s moral choice to make. Because pregnancy unfolds within her body (despite an equally responsible male contribution), the decision of whether to have a child is her moral burden to bear, just as choosing to give birth is her very personal gift to bestow with her body. For those who face an unwanted or unviable pregnancy, it’s a true life-or-death decision — an enormous responsibility that weighs heavily on the woman in such unfortunate circumstances. And until birth, that moral and physical burden now falls exclusively on the woman.
If our society is serious about stripping that responsibility from pregnant women and giving a new moral status to fetuses, then shouldn’t men be held equally accountable from conception? If the government can require women who have sex to give birth, certainly the government can require men who have sex to have their cheeks swabbed.
Teresa Stack was the president of The Nation magazine from 1998 to 2016.