If, as liberals claim, autonomy is the highest good, then it seems as if men are being treated like second class citizens (as the liberal phrase goes). All the autonomy goes to the woman and none to the man.
There are men in the men's rights movement who think the answer is for men to have the same reproductive choice as women. The proposal is that men would be able to opt out of fatherhood at some early stage of the pregnancy and be released from any obligations to support the mother and child.
So what do feminists think about this idea? Some prefer to hold to a double standard:
Should men have the same reproductive rights as women?
In a recent column, feminist Ellen Goodman answers this question in the negative, writing "Some men protest that they are left with no rights and all the bills. But when push comes to shove, one of two people has to make the decision. Those decisions belong to the one who will bear the child." For Goodman, reproductive rights are only for humans with the right genitalia.
But there are others who want to be ideologically consistent:
Christie Brewster, of the Reproductive Choice Association at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, says "I think men should have a choice." Other members of the group were equally sympathetic. "I totally understand what they [the NCM] mean," said one. Teresa Wright, another member, was also interested in the idea.
...none other than Karen DeCrow, former president of the National Organization for Women, was quoted as saying that "men should not automatically have to pay for a child they don't want. It's the only logical feminist position to take."
DeCrow wrote a letter to the editor of New York Times Magazine a decade ago in which she endorsed the idea of male choice. "Justice..." she wrote, "dictates that if a woman makes a unilateral decision to bring pregnancy to term, and the biological father does not, and cannot, share in this decision, he should not be liable for 21 years of support. Or put another way, autonomous women, making independent decisions about their lives should not expect men to finance their choice."
Interesting. A former president of the National Organisation for Women believes that in a more just world men would choose whether or not to support the children they father. She is a feminist who supports a policy that would leave women and children in a more difficult position. But she is right that it is a logical position for a feminist woman to take: if autonomy is the highest good, then it is just to distribute it equally between men and women. The arbitrary double standard can't last forever.
What this shows, I think, is how important first principles are to intellectual/political type people. Karen DeCrow is willing to make women worse off because she believes she is supporting a just measure based on her first principles.
But it also suggests just how wrong her first principles are. When you have a father, mother and child then how can autonomous choice be made the highest good? The choice made by the mother impacts on the other two parties, as would the choice made by the father. But if you then arbitrarily declare that only the mother's choice counts, you violate the principle of "equal freedom".
And what if there was an attempt to make things equal by letting men opt out? Who would then pay to support the mother and child? In many cases, the state would pay the bills. And even if the mother herself covered the costs, the society would then be faced with very large numbers of fatherless boys.
Nor would the proposal necessarily make things easier for men. If the state were to accept it, that would mean official recognition of the idea that fathers were optional rather than necessary within family life. The status of men as husbands and fathers would further decline.
The autonomy approach doesn't work. It is maintained currently by picking out the mother as the sole rights bearer in contravention of the insistence on equal rights. But if men were given the same rights, then you would be faced with a further decline in the position of men within the family, alongside a considerable growth in state subsidised single motherhood. And the rights of the child would continue to be ignored.
The solution to the imbalance in rights is to reject the underlying principle that what matters most of all is the freedom to choose (which then becomes a contest to see whose choice trumps the other), in favour of the view that there is an objective moral standard applying equally to both men and women.