Sexism predicts belief men have the right to veto abortions as well as refuse to pay for unwanted kids

New research has found a link between sexist beliefs and support for men’s control over women’s reproductive choices. The study, published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, suggests that sexist beliefs are not only associated with the desire to prevent abortions, but also the desire to limit women’s autonomy.

“I first became interested in this topic after observing various news stories where men had taken their partners to court, in the attempt to prevent them from having their pregnancy terminated,” explained study author Aino Petterson, a PhD student and associate lecturer at the University of Kent.

“In the U.S., several bills have also been proposed, requiring spousal authorization in order for women to have abortions (e.g., Oklahoma, Missouri), and in some countries (e.g., Turkey, Japan), this is already the reality for women. At the same time, there is also an ongoing debate surrounding so-called ‘financial’ or ‘legal’ abortion – the proposition that men should have a right to opt-out from the legal and financial obligations of an unwanted child, typically before the child is born.”

The study surveyed 366 undergraduate psychology students in the United Kingdom and 281 U.S. adults via Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The surveys asked how much the participants agreed with statements such as “A woman should not be allowed to have an abortion if the man involved really wants to keep his unborn child” and “If a child is born against the father’s will, he should not be obligated to support the child financially.” They also asked about men’s control over women’s medical decisions, such as pre-natal screenings and C-Sections.

The researchers found that sexist attitudes predicted opposition to abortion as well as the endorsement of men’s control over women’s reproductive decisions.

“In modern developed societies, women have the right to make their own reproductive choices – in theory. But this freedom is undermined by ancient and culturally universal sexist ideas,” Petterson told PsyPost. 

“Since the advent of Peter Glick and Susan Fiske’s theory of ‘ambivalent sexism’ in 1996, psychologists have called these benevolent and hostile sexism. Researchers have shown that benevolent or ‘nice’ sexism — for example, the belief that women are more sensitive and moral than men — is associated with opposition to abortion rights and other freedoms during pregnancy and motherhood.”

The new study indicates that the belief in paternal rights for men is distinct from general opposite to abortion.

“Our studies show that hostile or ‘nasty’ sexists beliefs — that women are manipulative and trying to steal power away from men — is associated with the belief that men, specifically, should have the right to limit those freedoms,” Petterson explained.

“We found that men and women with higher levels of hostile sexism think that a man should be able to veto a woman’s decision to have an abortion, and to refuse to support her financially in raising a child if she chooses (against his wishes) not to terminate a pregnancy. Hostile sexists, it seems, want it both ways.”

“In sum, our studies indicate that:

– the reproductive freedom that women have on paper is unlikely to be realized fully in practice because it is undermined by culturally entrenched forms of sexism

– these forms of sexism may have developed to limit women’s reproductive freedom

– men and women do not differ much in their attitudes to women’s reproductive freedom: participants’ levels of sexism were much more important than their gender.

– traditional, sentimental, and affectionate ideas that women are the fairer sex (benevolent sexism) are associated with opposition to women’s reproductive freedoms, while misogynistic ideas about women (hostile sexism) are associated with the belief that women’s reproductive decisions should be controlled by their spouses.”

Like all research, the study had limitations.

“The studies are correlational and cross-sectional, so even though we would expect sexist ideology to be an antecedent of attitudes to endorsement of men’s control, further research, employing longitudinal designs, is necessary to confirm this,” Petterson said.

“Further, our studies were conducted only in the US and UK. Although there is evidence that women’s reproductive freedom is limited everywhere around the world (e.g., in Nigeria, only 6.2% reported making their own decisions about health care), future research needs to establish that sexism is responsible for this limitation.”

“The acceptance of men’s exertion of control may have adverse implications for women’s autonomy in reproductive decision-making and could potentially legitimize reproductive coercion,” Petterson added. “Additionally, women seem to be caught in a double bind by hostile sexists’ simultaneous support for men’s right to veto a woman’s decision to have an abortion and not be obligated to support an unwanted child financially if she does not terminate the pregnancy.”

The study, “Sexist Ideology and Endorsement of Men’s Control Over Women’s Decisions in Reproductive Health“, was authored by Aino Petterson and Robbie M. Sutton.