The Ethicist: Is It O.K. to Press Your Spouse to Have a Vasectomy Before You Ditch Him?

October 7, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Is It O.K. to Press Your Spouse to Have a Vasectomy Before You Ditch Him?”.

Some time ago, a friend told me that she was planning to leave her husband but was waiting for him to get a vasectomy. She said she knew she’d have to hold his hand through it to make sure it happened. Once the procedure was done, she planned to break the news that she was going to end the marriage.

I was dumbfounded and told her that I was concerned that she had chosen to pressure her husband to have a vasectomy before letting him know that she was ending the marriage. She said that she had been warning him for years that she was planning to leave and so it shouldn’t be a surprise. Furthermore, she felt that he could barely manage to parent the children they had and that she didn’t want him to be distracted by more kids.

She later reported that when she told her husband of her decision to end the marriage for good, he told her that he was upset to learn this after having had the vasectomy and that he believed it would hurt his chances of finding a new partner. Her response was that she was pretty sure that women weren’t going to be interested in having children with someone his age anyway (he’s middle-aged).

This woman is employed by an organization dedicated to reproductive choice and plans to work as a counselor. I have been troubled about what she told me for months and have considered disclosing the information to the organization, but I’m unsure: Would I just be “tattling” on what I find to be reprehensible human behavior? Or would this be a reasonable act in response to the highly inappropriate behavior of someone working in the field of reproductive choice? Please advise. Name Withheld

My response: Despite my project to see and show how a few responses handle many so-called ethical or moral issues, I can’t help but editorialize: Wow! I can’t think of many more premeditated cruel acts of abusive deception. Consent means informed consent, at least as I understand it, and she manipulated him into uninformed consent—that is, not consent.

If the sexes were reversed, many would likely categorize the behavior as sexual assault and the deceived women would receive global #metoo-like support and sympathy. Sadly, since he’s a man, people will support him, but not as they would a woman.

Nonetheless, my few responses apply.

I see the goal of speaking to her employer as an attempt to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty/anxious/angry/other emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

Your friend treated her spouse in an appallingly manipulative way. She believed that he wouldn’t have made the decision to have a vasectomy if he’d known she was ending the marriage for good, and she withheld this information in order to get him to do what she thought was best. That’s a case study in disrespect: People have the right to make the central decisions in their own life in the light of their best understanding of the situation, and she denied him his best understanding. That she judged he was a lousy father and thus shouldn’t have more children did not give her the right to manipulate him in this way any more than it would have given her the right to make him infertile by sneaking something into his food. (There are intricate and costly procedures for reversing vasectomies, but they’re not guaranteed to work.)

What you really want to know, of course, is whether this behavior shows her to be unfit to occupy her position at a reproductive rights nonprofit or to take up a career as a counselor. I presume this woman discussed these matters with you on the assumption that your relationship meant that you would treat the information as private. So to disclose to others what she told you would be to betray the relationship and ignore her understanding of what it entailed. Besides, there’s a person better placed to make such a complaint than you, namely, the husband she’s divorcing.

I understand your urge to intervene: What she did is not just immoral but also in contravention of her employer’s mission. You might worry that her failure to respect the reproductive autonomy of her husband derives from a generalized contempt for the reproductive autonomy of others. But there’s a significant body of research in social psychology suggesting that our conduct in one type of situation often doesn’t generalize to others. You can be an honest broker and a dishonest husband. That someone has done something awful in the context of a difficult marriage, then, doesn’t prove her to be an awful person in every other respect; and it certainly doesn’t establish that she’d be unable to discharge her professional obligations. Thinking that you can manipulate your about-to-be-ex-husband’s choices doesn’t entail thinking that it’s O.K. to do the same with a client.

There’s a natural tendency to want people to suffer for their wrongdoings. But sometimes it isn’t our job to make that happen. I’d leave this episode—and this woman—in your past.


I work in a performance field in which the group of performers and casting people is so small that “everyone knows everyone.” As a result, I recently found myself in a difficult contractual situation, and I wonder if I was ethically obligated to make the disclosure I did or if there was a better way to handle it.

I was under contract with a large European company that included an exclusive-option provision for the next season, though there was no monetary compensation attached to it. I was told that it was most likely unenforceable, but also that completely ignoring the option would make getting future work in the field difficult. When I inquired about the next season, I didn’t get a definitive answer, so I began to look for future work. I was offered a contract with a United States company, but its schedule conflicted with the European season. The United States contract included a 90-day probationary period during which I could leave without penalty or the company could fire me without penalty. Neither contract was a union contract.

I received conflicting advice: Some said I should just sign the new contract and back out of it if the European company exercised the option. Others said the right thing to do was to explain to both and get an answer from the European company. I chose the latter; the outcome was not good. The United States company was angry I had even sought a job. The European company wouldn’t give me a timely answer. When they finally said they didn’t need me, it was too late to take the United States contract. The end result of “taking the high road”: no work for me.

Should I have said nothing? Was I ethically obligated to raise the option? Or did I have no choice because the individuals involved knew one another?

To me, this situation raises other issues: how companies take advantage of young performers with limited opportunities and only a short period of their lives when they can perform as they do, as well as on why performers’ unions exist, whatever their limitations. When you don’t have an agent and have to negotiate on your own, you really have no leverage. Was there another way? Name Withheld

My response: I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue. Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. As with most of life, each potential action has results and you want to find an outcome most acceptable to the most number of people. What helps solve problems? In this case, probably talking to people with experience, developing social and emotional skills to communicate with the people affected, empathy for how potential results will affect different people. I would start with those things before writing a newspaper ethics columnist.

You can’t change the past, so any backward-looking advice is hypothetical. After the Europeans didn’t respond and before looking for new work, I would have emailed the Europeans a nicely worded version of “Like anyone, job security is important to me. Since I asked and you haven’t answered definitively, unless you tell me otherwise, I’ll conclude are comfortable with me securing future work.”

Once you acted unilaterally then, I wouldn’t characterize your behavior as “the high road.”

The New York Times response:

In many fields, employers exploit the vulnerabilities of potential employees by imposing on them conditions that are hard to refuse. “Noncompete” and “no poach” clauses, notoriously, restrict the mobility of workers and depress their wages. Employers can get away with conduct that would be regarded as unprofessional in fields with a more even balance of power between management and talent. Even with an agent, you’d probably find that where there are lots of talented people and few opportunities, the cards are mainly in the hands of the execs doing the hiring.

The general moral requirement that we keep our promises is not easily waived. Yet coercion—the imposition of morally illegitimate pressures on others—undermines the moral weight of an agreement. If, for instance, I extract a promise from you by threatening to reveal something you told me in confidence, you should feel free to break that promise if you can get away with it.

Where your obligations are unclear, an assessment of consequences is in order. Much here depends on the details: Would the American company have been significantly harmed if the European company had wanted to exercise the option and you had to leave? If we’re talking about a minor inconvenience, as seems most likely, you would probably have been justified in ignoring a clause you had no ability to reject or adjust. You’d still have had to worry that taking “the low road” would be discovered and your reputation damaged (or even that you might be sued). This, however, is a matter not of ethics but of prudence.

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2 responses on “The Ethicist: Is It O.K. to Press Your Spouse to Have a Vasectomy Before You Ditch Him?

  1. She shouldn’t be a counselor involving reproductive autonomy if she’s undermining other people’s reproductive autonomy and manipulating and defrauding others into relinquishing theirs.

    What this shows is that in no way she would be a good counselor. One would feel press to employ her even as an accountant for this type of organization involved in such things, much less an counselor.
    It’s like hiring a drug dealer as a rehab counselor.

    And the failure of a new york times ethicist to see this is astonishing. and enough grounds to take him from the job.

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