Like many pro-choice women, my stomach has been in knots over the recent Texas regulations outlawing abortion after a ‘heartbeat’ is detectable— generally at the six-week mark of gestation —a time when many women do not even know they are pregnant.
Emboldened by two new Catholic judges on the Supreme Court (now six of the nine judges are Roman Catholic), states are passing laws taking direct aim at overturning Roe vs. Wade. The audacious reach of these new laws signal that anti-choice leaders believe their time has finally come.
The Texas law is sinisterly clever in its attempt to dodge previous obstacles to the enforcement of abortion restrictions. Why require the nuisance of police having to regulate abortion when you can empower ANY citizen to file a civil suit against ANYONE who facilitates the procedure in any way? As the new Texas law stipulates, all citizens have standing to sue any person involved with a post-heartbeat abortion – everyone from the attending doctor, a building janitor, or the bus driver who directs a woman to the stop near the clinic – can be sued.
Successful plaintiffs get a minimum payout of $10,00 and all their court costs covered, while defendants must cover their own legal costs, even if they win the case. And if you don’t defend yourself from these (potentially unlimited) suits, you are automatically found guilty. And, just in case you were wondering –- NO, there are no exceptions for rape and incest.
If Roe is overturned (overtly, or just effectively, as in the regulations of the new Texas law), life will change dramatically for women of child-bearing age. Three generations of women have reached sexual maturity owning the power to control their own bodies and to choose when or if to have children. This is not a right that can easily be reversed – it is deeply embedded in the sexual coming of age of millions and millions of American women.
I’d like to suggest a way to address the profound gender inequity of the Texas law (and others like it that are sure to follow), and to help protect and care for all of the unwanted children soon to be born: We are in a new period of human history. Science has developed the ability, shortly after conception, to safely and definitively determine the paternity of a fetus, as early as seven weeks after an egg is fertilized. It is past time for our abortion discussions to reflect this reality.
Key foundational principles of most societies and systems of law are rooted in the concept that paternity could never be conclusively proven, and therefore women’s sexuality must be strictly controlled. During the last half century or so, ways to determine paternity after birth have been developed, yet they are cumbersome and too often require the woman to seek accountability, via lawyers and courts, and from unwilling men.
In the past, all abortions have occurred before genetic paternity could be established, so the legal and ethical (and financial and physical) considerations fell exclusively on the pregnant woman. Great news: Those days are over!
The non-invasive pre-natal paternity test (NIPP) could not be easier: a drop of the mother’s blood a few weeks following conception and a simple cheek swab of the potential father. Sure, likely candidates for fatherhood would have to endure an invasive q-tip gently grazing the inside of their mouth, but that is not too much to ask as we prepare to force women to bear children they often cannot raise and do not want. As the embryo reaches seven weeks of gestation – just one week after abortion is now outlawed – the father can be determined and promptly registered with the government. The NIPP tests could even be conveniently administered at the DMV or Post Office and both parents named upon any conception. It would be a cheap and easy (and 99.9% accurate) way to immediately enforce the responsibilities of sex on both potential parents.
Follow me through this thought experiment: What does the world look like when fathers-to-be are immediately held equally responsible for any pregnancy, no matter how early, viable, unwanted or gratefully welcomed? We can do this now. We have the technology. If we are serious about legislating the birth of all fetuses, we must simultaneously hold the father equally accountable at all phases of gestation and life. Science has gifted us with what could be seen as a massive moral leap forward – let’s now determine and hold accountable the female and male responsible for all fertilized human eggs!
Fetuses can then have the guarantee of legal and social benefits such as inheritance and social security from their father. They can know their paternal medical history and be eligible for the future father’s health plan, regardless of marital status. We can ensure that all fetuses have a male and female parent required to provide for them through adulthood. Just imagine the money the government will save supporting single mothers and their kids!
There would be no need to burden the police with enforcement – per Texas’ creative idea, we can empower a volunteer brigade of concerned citizens to (gently) swab the cheeks of any non-compliant male suspected of creating an embryo (sign me up – I want to be a good citizen!). And anyone could then sue the future father for child support. Or perhaps an easier solution would be to keep the DNA records of all newborn boys to make certain they are held equally responsible for the life created by any female they may impregnate in the future. It’s so simple!
If women are to be required by the state to give birth, then it’s morally, socially, and economically essential that men are equally and legally tethered to the process from the very beginning. This simply wasn’t possible during all of human history. And now it is! Isn’t science great?!
I am guessing that most people will reflexively recoil at the idea…at the bodily intrusion of forced paternity tests, the massive government overreach, the use of citizen-enforcers… but what is the moral reasoning (or religious doctrine) to counter this proposal? If all post-heartbeat fetuses have new moral standing, and women are required to give birth, it follows that all fathers must be equally bound by the state.
To me, the thought experiment illustrates the fundamental fact of abortion – that it is ultimately a women’s moral choice to make. Because pregnancy unfolds within her body (despite an equally responsible male contribution), the decision of whether to have a child is her moral burden to bear, just as choosing to give birth is her very personal gift to bestow with her body. For those who have faced an unwanted or unviable pregnancy, it’s a true life or death decision – an enormous responsibility that weighs heavily on women in difficult circumstances. But until birth, that moral and physical burden belongs exclusively to the woman. If we as a society are serious about stripping that responsibility from pregnant women, then why shouldn’t men be held equally accountable from conception?
If the government can require women who have sex to give birth, certainly the government can require men who have sex to have their cheeks swabbed. And that both responsible parties are tasked – at six weeks into every pregnancy – with raising all embryos to adulthood.
*Author’s Note: At 6 weeks there is no heart – there is detectable electrical activity in cells that will eventually become the heart.
About the Author: Teresa Stack is an essayist, a multi-media producer, and the former president of The Nation magazine (1998-2016).