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Pregnancy, Abortion, and `Real Men'

AFTER nearly two decades without legal standing, the male partner seeking some say over a fetus he helped father may finally get some. If and when the Supreme Court returns abortion lawmaking to the states, men may be granted unprecedented legal rights.

Roe v. Wade ruled that only a female and her physician had a right to resolve how a pregnancy would end. Since then a handful of distraught lovers, fiances, and husbands have sought injunctions to delay or prevent an abortion. Appellate courts and the high court itself contend these males lack standing, though some judges express sympathy.

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Four male rights will soon be debated and require resolution. They encompass four controversies that males and females cannot begin discussing separately and together soon enough.

* Spousal prenotification, a component of the 1991 Pennsylvania law now before the court, raises the question of whether a wife's right to privacy outweighs her husband's right to advanced knowledge of an abortion. Backers of prenotice point to public opinion support among both genders. But opponents note that almost all wives already involve their spouse in the decision. Other wives fear bodily harm or mental abuse from their anti-abortion spouses, some of whom may not be the biological father.

* Spousal consent grants a husband a veto over his wife's desire to terminate her pregnancy. Proponents hail this as a way to protect the unborn, while opponents equate it with biological "slavery." They insist "compulsory pregnancy" would require medical imprisonment, and detect in it a hatred of women.

* Child support exemptions allow a male to escape court-ordered payments if he had urged an abortion and forsworn any role in the child's upbringing. Proponents insist no male should pay the cost of rearing a child whose birth he opposed. Others repeat the adage, "those who play should pay." They warn that allowing males a "free ride" will undermine their vigilance in contraception and unfairly shift all costs of child-rearing by indigent women to the taxpayer.

* Parity proposals, the least well known of post-Roe pros-pects, exposes a bias of courts against unwed males. Over and over again, the fact that a male is not married to the expectant mother has been cited with derision in dismissing a plea to enjoin a contested abortion. Proponents applaud this as consistent with the state's interest in rewarding couples who marry before they conceive. Opponents insist this bias ignores the popularity of living together as a marriage alternative, and argue that an unwe d male should have as much right as a husband to protect the life of a child he has co-conceived.

NEARLY 30 years of research into the male role in abortion persuades me that the resolution of these four post-Roe controversies can work to reduce the number of abortions, and, in fact, enhance the way couples relate before and after confronting an abortion.

Spousal prenotification laws, for example, would send a message that society expects both partners to share responsibility for the decision to terminate a pregnancy. These laws, however, should contain a "back door" provision to permit a judge in chambers to waive the requirement for women endangered by irrational, out-of-control males.

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Rejection of spousal consent laws would signal the nation's unqualified rejection of male supremacy doctrines. Because a pregnancy directly impacts a woman's health and lifestyle, its disposition must be her decision, free of coercion by parties of any and all persuasion.

Passage of laws providing males an escape from child support payments has superficial appeal. It would pressure females to upgrade their contraception choice. But, as it would relax this same pressure on males, it is far too sexist and one-sided to warrant enactment into law.

Quite different is the case that can be made for equalizing the standing in court of unwed and married males. The practice of punishing the former and favoring the latter in contested abortion (and adoption) matters is outmoded, one-sided, and overdue for reform. Second-class citizenship for unwed males is out of step with our changing times.

Taken together, these public policy options offer Americans a precious opportunity to redefine the entire abortion scene. Where we once termed it solely a woman's problem, we should view it as a dilemma experienced by a twosome who should share equally in preventing an unwanted conception.

Where we once shunted the male to the side, we could invite him instead to shoulder responsibility, albeit in full recognition of the female's right to ultimately resolve the matter. And where we once focused only on abortion's dark side, we should dwell instead on how couples can use their abortion experience to achieve a finer intimacy and a healing reconciliation.

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