Deveny’s ‘financial abortion’ is a form of coercive control

Usually when abortion is debated in the popular media, a dichotomy is drawn between ‘pro-choice’ campaigners arguing for autonomy and the right of women to control their own bodies, and ‘pro-life’ campaigners concerned with the rights of the unborn foetus.

But if ‘pro-life’ campaigners were genuinely concerned with the preservation of life, they would do more than fight to deny women access to abortion. They would spend their time actively working to create an environment in which women are genuinely supported to carry their pregnancies to term. Instead, these anti-choice campaigners are the exact same people who lobby for legal and economic policies that create poverty and ongoing systematic disadvantage for mothers (particularly in terms of workplace and public life participation).

So what does motivate anti-choice activists? The available evidence seems to indicate they are more concerned with controlling women and undermining their bodily autonomy – a conclusion supported by their participation in denying basic human rights to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. Examples of this include the widespread denial of birth rights (such as free and informed consent prior to invasive medical procedures) and the pervasive shaming and exclusion of breastfeeding women from public spaces.

Obviously, coercive control over women’s bodies and choices should be forcefully challenged by the feminist movement.

Unfortunately, while liberal feminists do fight for women’s access to safe, accessible and affordable contraception and abortion, they often ignore or even undermine the related issue of supporting women who choose to carry a pregnancy to term. Too much of the liberal feminist discourse around pro-choice campaigning focuses only on the choice to have an abortion. There is little ‘choice’ or support for women who either can’t or don’t want to undergo a medical termination.

A recent article by Catherine Deveny supporting a right to so-called ‘financial abortions’ for men clearly demonstrates this problem. Deveny argues that men should have the opportunity to ‘opt out’ of fatherhood if a woman ‘chooses’ to continue with a pregnancy against his preferences. The fact that so many men already get away with washing their hands of any parental responsibility – including the payment of child support – is apparently not enough. Deveny is seeking to both formalise and legitimise this existing practice.

So what is the problem? Isn’t this a natural extension of being pro-choice? Shouldn’t women have to take responsibility for their choices?

In a word: no.

To start with, this argument completely ignores the rights of the child. According to articles 7–9 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all children have the right to know and have a connection to their parents. Exceptions are provided for situations where ‘separation is necessary for the best interests of the child’, but a man’s desire to avoid child support payments doesn’t qualify. Even in cases when separation is warranted, it is rarely permanent in nature, leaving the door open for personal growth and renewed connection.

But the main problem with Deveny’s argument is that it buys into the neoliberal narrative of individual choice by completely ignoring the broader structural issues that fundamentally constrain women’s choices. The reality is that too many pregnant women already face a stark decision to undergo a medical termination or to risk a life of increased poverty and structural discrimination. While some women will opt to have an abortion (which, by the way, is still a criminal offence in much of Australia), termination should not be the only available option for women to avoid systematic disadvantage.

Just as we should fight for the rights of those women who want access to safe, accessible and affordable abortion, we should also be fighting for the rights of women who instead choose to carry their pregnancies to term. If not, we are punishing women for not having an abortion when a man wanted them to, and that reeks of the kind of coercive control that has no place in the feminist movement.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Cristy Clark is a legal academic and chair of the Feminist Writers Festival.

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  1. My problem with this critique is it lacks intersectional engagement. The analysis of power dynamics and systematic disadvantage start to become far more complicated than the simple picture you discuss when race, class, age, and gender identity are all at play. It is not just white women who experience structural disadvantage and the constraint of choice. In cultures where male responsibility is highly valorized and non-tradional families highly shamed, many men remain in the lives of their child to the detriment if both. These men and women also suffered from constrained choices, and of course the child has no choice at all. My own father would have been better off absent than recapitulating his own difficulties throughout my life. The notion of “men” being used here is, dare I say it, very white.

    Also, the Convention in the Rights of Child is itself neoliberal in it’s pedastalling of the social importance of biological inheritance, and thus the belief in the “importance of family”. That is an assumption based on patriarchal notions of the “family unit” and it’s primacy in social life.

    I agree that women need greater support for any decision that they make, from the government, from their community, and even indeed from their biological partners. But the discussion is more complex than it is made out to be.

  2. The assumption that the author is talking about “white women” in this article is racist. The categorisation of all people of colour as the same, living in the same living arrangements is racist. I want to thank the author for the article. It resonated with some of my own experiences.

  3. I did not like Deveny’s article, poorly written I felt, and I did find Kristy’s rebuttal fairly convincing, yet there is within all this an interesting question. If we do a thought experiment I’d be very interested to see what the response is. Let’s imagine a couple who do agree that they do not want children. Let’s assume they have really discussed this deeply and for arguments sake have even documented the agreement. They do all the right things and yet the contraception fails and the woman gets pregnant. If the man was to say, I’ve changed my mind I want us to have the child I would certainly argue the woman has every right to say no. ‘We’ve already agreed that we don’t wish to have a child’. So what happens if the woman changes her mind? The man, who in good faith has made an agreement with his sexual partner not to have children, is now obliged in all sorts of ways to live with the consequences of his partners change of mind. So putting aside the broader questions this becomes a puzzle about how we keep agreements with each other and what should the consequences of breaking agreements be. I don’t feel that your critique has addressed this puzzle. I don’t have any clear answers to this puzzle myself, but I do think it’s an issue that asks for some serious thought.

      • Decision to carry the child, sure, but the decision to make the other adult subservient to her desires? Never.

    • It’s an interesting thought experiment you propose but the fundamental flaw in the narrative is the man is being put on this situation because of his partner’s change of mind but I don’t see it that way. The man is in this position because a failure in contraception. The assumptiom that every woman who doesn’t want a child would or should have an abortion is patently incorrect – it is not and should never be a forgone conclusion that the woman has then changed her mind about, or ‘reneged’ on their agreement. The pregnancy was an accident and the woman is simply not choosing to terminate. That’s not the same as actively choosing to have a child IMO. It’s just something that happened and the woman is going to have to deal with it. And the man needs to do the same. And as a side note, using multiple forms of contraception is the best way to prevent pregnancy since it’s almost impossible for several forms of contraception to fail all at once. Just saying

      • That’s a very good point Tanya.
        But to clarify, the man is in that position (or rather, /they/ are in that position) because the contraception failed AND the woman has decided to carry the child to term. This clarification takes nothing away from your point that the desire not to have children is not the same as the wish to abort an unborn child.

        Still, if she chooses ‘yes’, which seems to me to be just as much of a choice as choosing ‘no’, she also chooses for him (in Peter’s sense). It is not “just something that happened”.

        Good point though.

  4. Given the preface to Deveny’s piece was that “assuming abortion is safe (it is) and easily available (it isn’t)” half of your piece can be skipped.

    I’m sure we can all agree on that single parents need more support than a household with two parents (and indeed, the nuclear family is failing us today)

    You say it is a stark decision to undergo a termination, and whilst I know it’s not the most hilarious or facebookable event, it’s not like the alternative is unknown, I mean, people who go and bring pets into their homes understand there is an ongoing requirement of food and shelter – no magic storks here

    • David disagree with your discriminative comment – “I’s sure we can all agree on that single parents need more support than a household with two parents” that truly is a sexist comment – you are saying a woman needs help because there is not a male around to contribute to households? Many successful business women raise their children on their own – and to use the word single parent – again sexist meaning a married women is a double parent? The terminology single mother was put into place as a tag by males meaning she does not have a male in her life – a parent is a parent – single or married – there is no difference – research carried out by Commonwealth Government showed children raised by one parent rather than two – were better raised and more stable than those raised by two parents – women are quite capable of raising children on their own without a male present in household – not incapable

  5. The article raises many questions of concern – if during the brutal era of our Nation’s history newborn babies were stolen for infertile couples – many under coercive control – why would we be discussing in 2016 coercive powers over women – whose coercive powers????? Are we returning to the middle ages and treatment of women

  6. Referencing Peter’s scenario where two people had an agreement that neither wanted to be parents, many automatically assume an abortion is the only solution. That is of course the logical train of thought when looking at reproductive rights in an article. But for a thought exercise, if a woman decides to carry her pregnancy to term but decides to give up the baby for adoption, would the man in the equation be responsible for financial support during the pregnancy? I would argue yes, his rights are still intact in so far as he is not being coerced into a fatherhood role but he was responsible for the pregnancy as much as the woman. I also believe that the woman’s right to autonomy would also be intact as well? Just another scenario to discuss.

  7. “we are punishing women for not having an abortion when a man wanted them to, and that reeks of the kind of coercive control that has no place in the feminist movement”

    No we are allowing women to make the best choice for themselves. The option of a male financial abortion allows a woman to determine if the father will be present both physically and financially raising that child. A woman can now choose whether abortion, adoption, or keeping the child will work best with her financial reality.

    As it is now men are forced into financially providing for the child. This does not allows happen and even when financial support is given physical support is not. If a mother has to work full time, childcare expenses will easily surpass child support payments.

    Allowing financial abortions early on will allow women to make informed choices about how they want to proceed.

  8. “We should also be fighting for the rights of women who instead choose to carry their pregnancies to term. ”

    Not quite. By fighting male financial abortion for men you are fighting for the “right” to have men provide and take care of you. This article reeks of typical female entitlement where women make the choices and then demand men clean up the mess.

    I will always be anti-choice until such a time as men have equal choice.

  9. I’d consider myself very pro-choice when it comes to abortion. However I still support the idea of financial abortions, simply because I believe men have no greater obligation to parenthood than women.
    After all, the typical arguments that the father should have taken more care can just as easily be applied to abortion on demand.

  10. I think this article has set out to obfuscate the point of this entire debate. Which is it’s really a simple matter of reproductive rights.

    I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a father. I have a beautiful child whom my partner and I chose to bring into this world.

    That said, being a parent is completely life changing at every level from social to financial. It has a huge impact on a person.

    The fact is that as it stands right now, in the case of an unwanted or accidental pregnancy men have absolutely no choice. They are entirely stripped of any agency in a decision with irrevocable consequences for their life and future.

    To say that giving men a choice and some rights is giving them coercion over women is just dishonest. You can make exactly the same argument the other way, because right now men can be coerced into supporting a child they did not want. This attitude just stinks of wanting to preserve a privilege.

    In stating that though, I am not saying that the decision to terminate is an easy one for a woman. But at least women have the choice. Which is the crux of the issue.

    The argument that men already avoid responsibility for children is absurd. I live in a country where the government will forcibly take child support directly from a person’s wage. There are countries where people can be jailed for failing to pay child support.

    The argument that, “You had sex so you take responsibility for the consequences”, is also absurd. It’s effectively the exact same argument campaigners against abortion make. It’s incredible to see pro-choice women taking up the arguments of their opponents when it suits them.

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