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Why Men Should Be Included in Abortion Discussion

Locking men out of conversations about abortion often comes at a great expense.
 
 
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When I was in high school, one of my friends got a secret abortion. Though I wasn't raised in a religious household, I remember taking a sheet of white, clean paper and writing a series of haphazard prayers that I then hid in my sock drawer.

One of them was for Cody,* my friend's bewildered boyfriend. She wanted nothing to do with him, though he was trying his 17-year-old-teenage-boy best to be supportive; she said it felt like Cody had done this to her. I understood, but I also knew that he must be -- as she was -- holding it together all day, crying alone at night, utterly confused. Though raised Catholic, he too thought an abortion was the right decision, but had no role in the ritual of that choice.

I think of Cody from time to time and wonder what he's doing now. I recently heard a rumor that he's gone on to study theology. I can't help but wonder if that decision was in some way informed by the conversation he was never able to have -- with her, with friends, with mentors, with his version of god -- about his experience of abortion.

After all, where is a pro-choice man who wants guidance, community or counseling around his experience of abortion to turn?

In the public sphere, the most vocal mention of men and abortion comes in virulently unsympathetic forms: government officials' ethically indefensible, not to mention totally impractical, attempt to chip away at Roe v. Wade with consent laws (see the recent Ohio bill), or pro-life propaganda dressed up as counseling for men. It is no surprise that our pathetic excuse for sex education in this country makes little mention of abortion and/or the ways in which men might be affected by it.

In the clinical sphere, already spread-too-thin therapists and medical staff pay little attention to men's involvement. Ninety-eight percent of clinic counselors are female, so a man hoping to discuss his feelings with a peer is largely out of luck.

In the most comprehensive study of men and abortion to date, Arthur Shostak, a professor of sociology at Drexel University, who describes himself as "unswervingly pro-choice," found that men's single greatest concern was the well-being of their sex partner and, further, that a majority of men would like to accompany their partners throughout the procedure. Most clinics don't allow men beyond the waiting room, something Shostak says is evidence that many think of men as "coat holders and drivers."

And in the private sphere, men struggle to reach out to one another about their experiences for a variety of reasons. A stigma against abortion overall remains (more oppressive in some geographies than others, of course), often keeping both women and their partners silent with even the closest of friends and family. In the same way that contemporary men are still groping for ways to be honest with one another about all things sexual -- abuse, orientation, dysfunction -- they just don't seem to have the language to talk about their abortion experiences.

Few young men have fathers or mentors who have authentically modeled opening up about the very common experience of unexpected pregnancy. Wisecracks and silence are still the norm, despite the fact that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, about half of American couples have experienced an unintended pregnancy, and at current rates, more than one-third (35 percent) of women will have had an abortion by age 45.

The pro-choice movement, and feminists in general, seem to have historically shied away from the difficult but imperative task of involving men in conversations about abortion. It is understandable that the movement has been weary; no hot-button issue brings out more manipulation than this one. But it is time that feminists' commitment to equality, as well as the quality of both women and men's lives, trumps their fear that acknowledging men's hardships will only serve as fodder for pro-life spin doctors. There must be a way to talk about men's perspectives and experiences without compromising women's bodies.

Men speak out
Jack*, a 28-year-old male, describes the abortion that his girlfriend went through a few years ago as "a really, really tough decision, but one that we made together, as partners." Though he looks back on the experience with some sadness, he also sees it as a pivotal moment in the development of his own identity as a man. "The experience really made me man up -- get out of debt, figure out a job, and get my shit together, generally," Jack reflects. "It made me realize that, A, I did want to have a kid someday and, B, that the woman I was with is who I wanted to have a kid with."

Jack looked to close friends for support -- one male, one female -- but felt somewhat abandoned while actually in the clinic waiting room: "I remember sitting there feeling terrified. I would have appreciated someone to talk to who had been through that moment."

On the political level, Jack is unabashedly pro-choice. He believes that neither men, nor other women, should have any legal right to dictate what a woman does with her own body. But he does feel that the missing dialogue about men and abortion is detrimental: "If guys were talking about their experiences more it would bring added depth and a new understanding to this complicated issue." Jack and his partner were married last year.

Not all guys report experiencing such a spirit of communication, support and reflection throughout difficult abortions. Philip*, a 27-year-old, regrets his inability to handle the significance of his girlfriend's abortion. He received little support at the time and still -- years later -- feels like he hasn't truly processed what he went through.

After his girlfriend determined that she was, indeed, pregnant, there was little discussion over the options. Philip described it more as an automatic attitude of "OK, let's take care of it," meaning schedule an abortion immediately.

In the days leading up to the abortion, Philip found himself incapable of acknowledging the complexity of what was about to take place, instead relying on humor to cope with what he now sees as fairly deep feelings. He explains, "I frequently tried to inject humor into the situation, something I know wasn't appreciated by my partner. In the days between the positive test and the abortion, I grew somewhat detached and distant. I wanted to be present emotionally, but I was overwhelmed."

Philip's partner determined who was "allowed to know" -- limited to a few close friends and her mother. He turned to these close friends, but found "his boys" as ill-equipped as he was to handle the depth of the situation. Instead of gaining insight into how to support his partner through serious circumstances, he became even more prone to make light of it. "There were times when I minimized its importance and made it out to be no big deal," Philip remembers. "I thought that might make it easier for both of us. I thought acknowledging the magnitude of the event would only add to the stress and sadness."

Philip and his partner have since split up. He sums it up: "My emotional absence stings me to this day, since it was such a significant ordeal in both of our lives. My distance and lack of grace made my partner feel alone, and that hurts."

As more brave voices -- like Jack's and Philip's -- make their way into both alternative and mainstream media, perhaps boys and men can find a way to enter into dialogue with one another, and with their partners, about how abortion has affected their lives.

There is a growing, though still inadequate, movement to address men's experiences of abortion. At the forefront is Shostak, author of Men and Abortion, Losses, Lessons, and Loves, which is based on a survey involving more than a thousand men who responded to questionnaires in the waiting rooms of 30 clinics located in 18 states. Other books are not explicitly aimed at but address men, such as Unspeakable Losses: Understanding the Experience of Pregnancy Loss, Miscarriage & Abortion, by Kim Kluger-Bell, and The Choices We Made, by Angela Bonavoglia. Online, pro-choice men can find support at www.menandabortion.com, a site founded in 2006 and still in development.

There is a price to both men and women when men don't feel supported or safe to talk about their experiences with a partner's abortions. Men can be pushed further into anxious masculinity, subconsciously convinced that if the world acts like their feelings don't matter, they'll just pretend not to have them. Women are then burdened with both the physical responsibility of the abortion and the entire emotional responsibility of processing what it means.

If both men and women feel like they have a role in the procedure and healing -- however that's interpreted by partners, depending on their spiritual and/or political beliefs -- we will be healthier as a whole. Perhaps men, freed from the shackles of silence, will also be more prone to help out in the important work of keeping Roe v. Wade intact and abortion safer and less stigmatized for everyone.

*Names listed are pseudonyms.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

 
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