When I read about Iowa’s dangerous and restrictive “life at conception” bill back in February, I couldn’t help but share my fury with my equally liberal husband. “Under this law,” I said, “a woman who has a miscarriage could be charged with a homicide.” He was angry, as anyone with a conscience should be. But it was the way he was angry that drove sharply home exactly how cis men misunderstand the panic women, transgender men, and non-binary/gender fluid AFAB people feel when these laws advance.
“Well, it’s [the conservative politician’s] wives who’ll be going to jail. If they want to send them to prison…” he responded, as though the problem would sort itself. Of course, these men couldn’t enact a law that would harm the woman they loved, and once it did affect those women, the situation would somehow…
It was the ellipses, that dying, dismissive pause that spun me into a sputtering rage, not just at the lawmakers seeking to control pregnancy, but at my husband and all cis men who think they’re helping. Because I’d heard that ellipses before, in statements so similar to what my husband had just said. That ellipses revealed the privilege with which cis male allies can view “personhood” laws; it’s all hypothetical. It’s bound to fail, eventually, once cis men understand that the ramifications can affect them. It doesn’t matter that someone like Purvi Patel, who was tried and sentenced under a feticide law, must face criminal charges, media scrutiny, public shaming, and incarceration before legal precedent can be set to protect pregnant people in the future. Lives must be destroyed in the process of exposing the faults with these archaic laws, and the person at the center of the maelstrom will never be a cis man.
How can the assumption that everything will right itself once a cis man is inconvenienced ever be considered a progressive or helpful stance? As I tried to explain to my husband why laws like this are a serious problem when they’re proposed and not just after a pregnant person is led to the sacrificial altar, I found my mind whirling with memories of all the times I’d heard exactly this line from a cis man claiming to be a pro-choice ally. “When it affects their daughters…” “When it affects their wives…” or the more insidious, “When it affects their mistresses.” Two of those arguments suggest that it’s okay for the wife, the daughter of a pro-life man to be destroyed, but the third implies that it’s definitely okay if the person in question is a woman of loose morals. In all of these statements, pro-choice cis men reduce pregnant people to property and assume that dynamic will settle, rather than perpetuate, the problem.
But it does perpetuate the problem. There is a healthy amount of “what about the father’s rights!” arguments presented by pro-lifers, wrestling the concerns and desires of cis men directly into the center of the issue. When pro-choice men do the same, the discourse is taken completely out of the hands of the very people it actually affects. The conversation is no longer about the bodily autonomy of a pregnant person, but about the right of cis men to procure or prohibit abortion for another person.
This also relies on reducing reproductive rights to a “women’s issue”, a narrow label that excludes pregnant people who aren’t women. While the mainstream feminist focus on abortion as a women’s rights issue carries the bulk of the blame for that (sometimes purposeful) exclusion, I have to wonder whose property a pregnant transgender man must become before cis men will include him in their stance.
Cis men cannot and never will grasp the feeling of utter helplessness and violation a person feels at discovering they are carrying an unwanted pregnancy. Therefore, it is not for them to sit back and watch as those of us who can become pregnant shoulder the burden of legal and societal consequences. It’s simply not enough to spout the same tired lines about male politicians being hypocrites and ministers secretly paying for their good Christian daughters’ abortions. Those scenarios center cis men in a conversation that is not, should not, and will never be about them or their needs.
“I don’t care about some politician regretting something because of his wife or daughter,” I sputtered at my husband that night. “I care about the people this will actually harm.” But I don’t know if I got through to him. How can anyone convince a cis man that his view is not superior to that of someone who’s capable of becoming pregnant when that ability itself has defined the unimportance of those people for centuries? No matter how good his intentions, can a cis man truly buck the societal programming that tells him he has critical wisdom to impart on the topic?
I’ll leave it at what I ended up telling my husband that night: if a cis man can’t form views on anti-abortion laws without centering himself in the narrative, he simply cannot be considered an abortion rights ally.