A woman, Eva was raped by her boss while abroad on a business trip. Upon her return to the UK, her husband noticed something was wrong, and Eva told him the terrible story. She also discovered that the rapist had impregnated her; she made the difficult choice to keep the baby. Too upset at the prospect of raising another man’s child, the Eva’s husband left her, and has never seen the son to whom she gave birth. Seven years on, she’s still single — as is her ex-husband — and she’s written to a Telegraph advice columnist about the possibilities of reconciling. The advice columnist, Lesley Garner, is breathtakingly unsympathetic to her, writing:
You decided to continue with the pregnancy in the absolutely unrealistic expectation that your husband would be happy to bring up the child of another man, his wife’s rapist. This is a no-brainer, Eva. No man could contemplate this. He would have found your decision inexplicable.
M. Le Blanc, Amanda Hess, and many of the commenters at the Telegraph site, are appalled both with Garner’s dreadful analysis and the beastly behavior of Eva’s husband. Amber, with whom I generally agree, surprised me by sympathizing with the ex, rejecting Hess’ characterization of him as a “total dickwad”:
It is baffling to me how the same people who would (rightfully) snap if a female rape victim was told not to abort her pregnancy because she’d love the baby as soon as it was born, or that tons of women are stepmothers or social workers and thus raising other people’s kids is no big deal, are incensed at the idea that a man might not be able to embrace this situation.
Count me in the camp that labels Eva’s husband a complete and utter “dickwad”.
There is nothing remotely analogous about, on one hand, forcing a woman to carry to term, against her will, a fetus conceived as the result of a rape — and on the other, expecting a husband to support his wife’s decision without equivocation. Even in marriage, a woman’s body doesn’t become her husband’s property; he doesn’t get to be sovereign over her reproductive choices. Obviously, in terms of their shared sexual life, a couple should, ideally, make decisions together about every aspect of family planning. Real life, however, wreaks havoc with our ideals. Men still rape women, and sometimes those women get pregnant as a consequence. While it would be a rare married couple who would have discussed this potential scenario in advance, it’s not at all unreasonable to expect a husband like Eva’s to share his wife’s burden to the best of his ability — and to share in the joy and responsibility that comes when a child is born.
This doesn’t mean that a man whose female partner is raped isn’t entitled to the full spectrum of feelings that would seem natural, given the situation. He’s entitled to feel ambivalent about raising a child conceived in an act of violence. But he wasn’t raped, and he’s not carrying the child. To leave his wife because he “can’t handle” the constant reminder of what happened is to elevate his feelings above her, to suggest an indefensible false equivalence between the harm done to his wife and the harm done to him.
This is, in yet another nasty form, the old “myth of male weakness”. This version suggests, as Garner does, that men are incapable of bonding with a child not biologically their own. I know a great many adoptive dads, including some wonderful gay male couples who parent together, who would be flabbergasted to learn this. (Parenthetically, I’ve always thought that what makes Joseph, husband of Mary, a saint in the Catholic tradition is not his willingness to raise a son who is clearly not his own. That was his moral if not his legal obligation, and ought to be expected of any husband. What made him saintly was his willingness to stay in a marriage that would never be consummated, the lasting companion of the ever-Virgin!) It is not “asking too much” of husbands to expect them to stick by their wives following rape and an unwanted pregnancy — unless we believe, as Garner does, that the male ego is terribly fragile, and the male capacity to love so very small indeed.
Years ago, one of my partners (I won’t say whether it was a wife or a girlfriend, but it was someone with whom I was living) was raped. She called me, hysterical, immediately after it happened, and I went with her to the hospital and through the police interviews. (The rapist was never caught.) This was before the availability of emergency contraception, and there were a few weeks where we wondered whether she might be pregnant. This ex of mine was from the “I could never have an abortion, but I support women’s right to choose” school. She said she had no idea what she would do if she was pregnant, as the two options that would be presented would be so wrenching. I could do nothing but promise her that I would stand by her no matter what. I was certainly ready, if she were pregnant and chose to have the kid, to stay and help her raise the child. When I say I was “ready”, that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t overwhelmed with my own emotions, my own anger, my own fears. But I had enough damn sense (and this was at a time in my life, many many years ago, when I had precious little of that indispensable commodity) to know that it wasn’t about me. My biological invulnerability to getting pregnant meant that when it came to making decisions about what to do with an unintended pregnancy, I had an ethical obligation to defer to and unconditionally support whatever decision my partner made. That wasn’t heroic in the least. It was just the right thing to do. After a few weeks, my ex learned to her immense relief that she wasn’t pregnant, and the decisions we had wrestled with didn’t have to be made after all.
I’m a great believer that men in heterosexual relationships ought to be involved in contraception and every other aspect of family planning. But because of the radically unequal nature of pregnancy, shared responsibilty for pre-pregnancy decisions doesn’t give men an equal right to decide the outcome of that pregnancy. That’s as true when the condom breaks as it is when one’s female partner is raped by another man. When you’re partnered, what happens to a spouse’s body involves you, but it doesn’t give you the right to make decisions for them as long as they are capable of making decisions for themselves. A husband whose wife develops terminal cancer, for example, might wish that his wife would avail herself of every possible long-shot surgical treatment — while she may be, after consulting with her doctor, ready for hospice care. But if a husband in that situation were to leave his wife because she refused to follow the treatment modality he wanted, we’d call him a “dickwad” and worse. In the end, it’s the person with cancer who gets to make the call about treatment; it’s the partner’s job to stand by them to the end. There’s precious little difference in Eva’s situation.
When we marry, we have a right to expect the “heroism of the everyday” from our spouses. As a a rule, we do in fact expect that heroism from women. But we don’t dare, it seems, ask it from men. That’s a mistake, a mistake the likes of Lesley Garner cruelly compounds.