Abortion is usually considered a woman’s right and it has been a feminist issue for as long as there has been feminism. The rights of the mother and the foetus take centre stage. Less discussed is the rights of the father, or the paternal rights, in cases of abortion.
The right to abortion has been a bitter fight and legislation is always at risk from opposition. One place in which some argue abortion rights need more clarity is paternal rights.
In many cases, the wishes of the father and the mother are aligned. Where the health of the mother is at stake, the father will usually agree that it takes precedent, as represented in law. In cases of rape and incest, which are both grounds for abortion in the UK, the rights of the father do not take precedence.
There is sometimes some disagreement, however, when it comes to making the choice as to whether to have an abortion.
Can a Man Prevent an Abortion in the UK?
In two cases, in 1987 and 2001, men have brought their wishes to keep their ex-partner’s baby to court. In both instances, the courts rejected the claims, citing the mental or physical health of the mother being at long-term significant risk and therefore it was her choice to have an abortion.
Mental and/or Physical Harm
In the UK, the grounds for abortion need to be represent a sufficiently high risk to the health of the mother, be it mental or physical. Some philosophers have argued that the risk to harm of the father should be taken into account. If a man wants to have a child and his partner does not but is pregnant, then he is at significant risk of mental harm if the foetus is aborted.
If the father has deliberately made plans to have a child and the mother deceives him by agreeing to it but then aborting the foetus, then some argue this is morally unconscionable and should not be allowed in law.
A woman can force a man to become a father as he cannot demand an abortion and she deprive him of the right to become a parent by having an abortion; however, a man cannot force a woman to continue with her pregnancy in the UK. This dichotomy is the basis for many arguments for the increased rights of the father who wants to keep his child.
Even in cases where deception is used against the father, his rights are not represented in UK law. In human rights law, the right to a family life is enshrined and is the cornerstone for the reproductive rights of humans. It has not been successfully argued in UK courts that this human right to have a family extends to depriving a woman of the right to an abortion where her long-term mental and/or physical health are threatened.
Harm to the Father
The prospect of having a child is enormously exciting to many father’s-to-be. That someone could deliberately deprive them of this through deception can be very harmful to that man, who could regret the abortion for the rest of his life. It is not uncommon for people to wonder who their child might have been, or to feel immense bitterness at being deprived of their potential family. Where a father wants a child and is able and willing to take care of the child, it can seem incredibly unfair to deprive him of this.
Arguments against the rights of the father in abortion cases cite that the rights of the mother and the foetus necessarily come first. Her right to choose what happens in her own body is a pillar of feminist thought and is generally accepted in the UK. If the child is unlikely to survive, has foetal abnormalities, or the continued pregnancy will harm the mother, then she should be given the right to make the choice to abort the foetus. Most women will be able to become pregnant again at a time of their own choosing.
Where a Father does not want the Child
If a father does not want the child, he has no right to demand an abortion. This is because the burden of pregnancy, childbirth and (usually) most of the care will fall on the woman, and to force her to have an abortion would be unconscionable and cruel.
In the UK, a father cannot escape from his legal responsibility towards the child once he or she is born. This includes paying child support, even if he had argued for an abortion before the child was born.
When in Doubt
Doctors do not usually have to seek the approval of a court for an abortion where “issues of capacity and best interests are clear”. However, one case in which clarification could be needed is where “where the patient, the potential father, or the patient’s close family disagrees with the decision”, according to the British Medical Association. So far, this leeway has not been successfully argued in favour of the father but there is potential for a court to uphold his rights.