If We Make Fathers Pay for Pregnancies, Aren’t We Calling the Fetus a Baby?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
July 10 2012 6:32 AM

Preglimony and Pro-Choice Rhetoric

If we ask fathers to support a pregnancy, aren’t we admitting that the fetus is a child?

Pregnant woman.
If we ask men to pay child support for a "baby-in-progress," is that conceding it's a life?

Photograph by David Harris/iStockphoto.

As a single mother, I read with interest the law professor Shari Motro’s eminently sensible and humane op-ed in the New York Times arguing for what she somewhat clunkily calls “preglimony.” Her point was that given new technologies that allow very early, safe paternity tests, why shouldn’t the father of the baby-in-progress be responsible for medical and other costs during pregnancy? She writes, “Preglimony names and in that way honors the man’s role in caring for his pregnant lover. A man and a woman who conceive are intimately connected. They are not spouses, and they may not even continue to be lovers, but they are not strangers either.”

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages and In Praise of Messy Lives.

What we do as a culture with this amorphous territory, this uncharted, barely legislated “intimate connection” located somewhere between friends, lovers, and strangers, is especially pressing now that the majority of babies in America born to women under 30 are born to single mothers. Though it may be tempting to dismiss this opinion piece as the highbrow mental exercise of a law professor, these practical questions, with their singular moral frisson, will increasingly need to be addressed.

The implications of Motro’s sensible stance to the pro-choice movement, though, are complex and thorny. The interests of protecting expectant mothers do not necessarily coincide with the interest of protecting abortion rights. Once you admit that the father is responsible to a woman carrying his fetus, you are halfway, at least in an imaginative sphere, to admitting that the fetus is a “life.” You are, in theory, extending the idea of “paternity” and implicitly the idea of the child, to pregnancy. (Motro chooses her clunky word “preglimony” carefully to avoid any implications of “child support” but the intellectual connection, the implication that there is a child, and not just a cluster of cells, is there.)

My Slate colleague Allison Benedikt touched on this issue when she wrote a piece about the Internet trend of Photoshopping sonograms onto pictures of pregnant stomachs. She wrote: “casually and publicly assigning human attributes to not-yet-human embryos—including an avocado-size embryo in the family portrait—does not seem like the best way to argue against measures that seek to treat that avocado like a member of our collective American family.”

To right-thinking liberals this may seem true, but it may also be true that the argument for reproductive rights needs to seek out more modern terms, terms that accommodate the new and emerging technologies and uncomfortable ambiguities of the avocado-sized entity. (An example of how slippery and untrue this language feels: Can we really call something the size of an avocado an embryo? Is it convincing, is it ultimately rhetorically effective, to stick to that particular feminist lingua franca?) 

I don’t actually think it is in the interests of feminism or the pro-choice movement to cling so rigidly to outdated notions of “life.” It no longer helps our cause to try to argue that the fetus is not “life.” The reason for this, as people have noted, is that technological advances, like sonograms, where you can see feet on a fetus in the first trimester, have made those claims clearly and patently hollow to even ardently pro-choice people who have seen the black and white staticky fuzziness take shape into human form. How can we possibly claim that the moving creature, with feet and toes that we can see, is not “life”?

It seems to me that the pro-choice movement doesn’t need to cling to these ideas, or this rigid ’70s-era idiom, to make its central argument acceptable to the larger public. The idea that a woman should control her reproductive choices is still a vivid and moral one even to a population that understands full well that a fetus is a baby-in-progress.

Can we admit that a woman has the right to choose, while also acknowledging what we see on sonograms? Can we say “embryos” and “fetuses” do represent some form of “life” without conceding a woman’s absolute control over the womb that bears them? A person who has had an abortion knows, and in fact has always known, and experienced very intimately this charged ambiguity: An unborn fetus that is wanted is a “baby,” and an unborn fetus that is not wanted is a “fetus.”

I think the new technologies, and the new demographic realities, in which unwed mothers need protections, demand a more imaginative, honest rhetoric. Paradoxically, I think in the long run it will only help the ongoing fight for reproductive rights, to evolve with the times, to trailblaze a way of thinking that encompasses the ambiguities we know, and can see, are there.

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