Husbands, wives and sperm: His body, his choice?

There’s a story in the news at the moment relating to sex, reproduction and consent. Well, okay, there are several (and each is maddeningly offensive in its own special way). But this one stands out from all the others. This one relates to husbands, wives and sperm donation. A woman in Surrey whose husband donated sperm without her knowledge is calling for new guidelines to treat sperm as a “marital asset”, which would mean that in future sperm could not be donated without the spouse’s views being taken into account.

The request strikes me (and many others) as ludicrous. I understand the woman’s distress at the thought of additional half-siblings causing upheaval in her own child’s life. Even so, this does not strike me as something about which one could or should legislate. It’s not her sperm, it’s her husbands. If he conceives children with women other than her (which he could still do even if the guidelines are altered), that is his right, just as it should be the right of any woman he impregnates to decide whether or not to continue with the pregnancy. That’s fair, isn’t it? Since it’s her body, her choice, shouldn’t it be his body, his choice too?

Well, kind of. I can’t help feeling there are several problems with hijacking this type of language, which has been used by some male commentators. First, it’s not as though the law does uphold the idea of her body, her choice; it doesn’t (any abortion in England, Wales and Scotland must be approved by two doctors). Second, the right to donate sperm is not the same as the right to terminate a pregnancy. Neither should be infringed, but the consequences differ hugely, and in a debate such as this, these things really matter.

In the Huffington Post Nick Watts claims that “if we were to be having this discussion the other way round and a man was claiming his wife’s eggs to be a marital asset, there would be outrage”:

We would be entering the right to choose and decide about what a woman does with her body and her eggs and there would be no debating, it would be a no. I don’t see how a man’s sperm is any different to this, even with the 2005 law change, the right to decide what happens with your body and it’s ‘products’ in law should always lie with the individual.

If we’re talking about egg donation, I think Watts is right. Nevertheless, in his use of terms such as “the right to choose” and “what a woman does with her body and her eggs”, there seems to me to be a curious blurring of boundaries. Certainly, if what we’re talking about is bodily autonomy, there is a huge amount of debate, plus a great many “no”s, for women. A woman doesn’t automatically get “the right to decide what happens with [her] body”. This is quite important, and it’s surprising that Watts fails to acknowledge this. After all, if not being permitted to decide the fate of sperm that is already outside your own body is so shocking, think of what it’s like not to have a choice regarding the exploitation of the organs inside you. If this case were to allow men to have even the tiniest bit of empathy regarding unwanted pregnancies, that would be a good thing. Alas, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead it’s leading to false analogies and suggestions that women have rights which they don’t yet possess.

The Daily Mail has commissioned a men’s rights activist to write about this issue. The activist in question, Peter Lloyd, doesn’t waste any time in getting to the nub of things: “given that a man’s permission isn’t needed for the termination of a pregnancy, I find this woman’s plea particularly offensive”. The trouble is, Peter, the permission of someone else – indeed, not just one someone else, but two – is always required before a woman can terminate a pregnancy. Now that I’ve explained that to you, do you find it equally “offensive”? And if not, why not? Is it because you’re too busy panicking that this is just the thin end of the wedge?:

If this woman is successful in changing the law, where would it end? What other body parts could a partner claim to co-own? Could a man stop a woman from becoming a surrogate mother? Could a woman stop a man from having a vasectomy?

Imagine! Another person claiming co-ownership of body parts! It’d be like, I don’t know, deciding a person had no say over whether another human organism uses his or her body as a host for survival! That’d never happen, would it? At least not to these privileged, controlling women!

It is truly another world that these men inhabit. And while I don’t think anyone should be legislating against their right to spread their seed, it would be nice to see a little restraint in this debate. If someone told me tomorrow that I couldn’t donate my eggs, it would be a loss for potential recipients, not me.* What goes on right now, inside my body, is a different matter. We should all get to own our bodies, but right now that’s not always the case. What’s shocking is that it’s not shocking at all.

* Okay, I’m flattering myself  – with the lifestyle I’ve led, who am I trying to kid?