Why Are Even Smart, Liberal Men Freaked Out by Abortion?

Even die-hard liberals who would wax on about a woman's right to choose were uncomfortable when presented with a woman who chose.

Four weeks after my abortion, I was dating again.

It was my second night out with a wide-eyed, pretentious poetry MFAer. We were three whiskey sodas down when he suavely brought up his recent bout with testicular cancer. His woes -- the monthly check-up tests, the weirdness of post-surgery masturbation -- flowed from his tongue without any hint of doubt that such talk might be second-date TMI.

Reaching his hand across the table and playing with my fingers, he asked innocently enough, "Have you ever had surgery?"

Um ... yes. I was still spotting from the procedure; I was reminded of it every time I pulled down my pants. In a drunken split second I debated avoiding the A-word. My abortion had basically been the uterine equivalent of minor knee surgery, annoying and a bit painful, but not soul-destroying or existentially angsty. At the same time, I didn't want to draw needless attention to the fragile and somewhat bloody state of my uterus, especially with someone I might want to invite in there later on.

Still, lying reeked of shame and regret, so I decided to answer him casually and matter-of-factly. If he turned out to be a bible-thumping right-winger screaming "Murder!" I didn't care much anyhow. I'd realized we didn't have long-term potential around midnight when he made the suggestion we go drop acid in Fort Greene Park and read Whitman poems to each other ("Fort Greene Park was, like, Whitman's favorite writing spot").

As soon as "I had an abortion recently" left my lips, his hand withdrew clumsily and his eyes, seeking refuge, darted up to the 1950s pinup poster on the adjacent wall. But apparently all that breast display was too evocative of fertility. He jumped up from the booth. "More drinks?" he asked -- and then scurried off without waiting for my reply. As far as appropriate date conversation goes, it seems that a dude is allowed to passionately elegize his one removed ball, but I couldn't even make passing mention of a discarded bundle of cells.


I was twenty-five when I discovered I was a month pregnant. I wasn't dating the fetus-daddy anymore, and I was without health insurance, having been laid off from my crappy fact-checking job.

I was the living, breathing example of that small percentage of women who get knocked up for being careless with their pill intake. I had no doubt I was going to terminate the pregnancy. In fact, my certainty gave me odd satisfaction. I'd spent countless weekends in college escorting abortion patients through the obnoxious church groups outside Planned Parenthood. One elderly protester, Teresa, would debate me for hours, and every time the argument was losing steam, she would let out a knowing, self-satisfied laugh, reducing my pro-choice position to lack of experience: "Ah, honey, you've never been pregnant. When you get pregnant for the first time, you'll feel a connection instantly. You'll know your child loves you and you won't be able to harm it."

Lo and behold, when I looked down at the two plus signs, there was no instant connection. The invasion in my abdomen felt more like a cruel joke than a loving creature who would paw at my breasts and call me "Mommy." Afterwards, I considered calling Teresa to brag about my angst-less procedure and the sweet aftertaste of relief. But I didn't have her digits, let alone her last name.

Besides, I knew friendlier ears. I honed my improbable pregnancy and ensuing abortion into a kvetching monologue about life's little inequities -- I get pregnant on birth control, while teenagers in Utah practicing the pray-to-God-and-please-come-on-my-ass method remain distinctly un-knocked-up? It's not like I broadcasted my uterine news to co-workers, distant cousins, or Facebook cronies. It was simply something that happened to me, and I shared it with my friends like I would've shared any other story. It would have felt wrong not to. My female friends laughed when I laughed, commiserated when I needed it and treated the procedure as lightheartedly as I did. That's all I wanted. To be able to define my own experience, not the other way around.

But there was a palpable discomfort when I had the same conversation with men. For the guys I was dating, the idea of a vacuum-like apparatus being the last visitor in my vagina was more troubling than if it had been, say, Stalin's penis. Even die-hard liberals who would wax on about a woman's right to choose were downright uncomfortable when actually presented with a woman who chose.

Of course I knew that bringing up abortion was about as fascinating as listening to a nursing-home doctor detail Grandpa's incontinence problems. Medical procedures are decidedly not sexy. As far as dating went, I operated under a tit-for-tat divulgence basis: you talk ball cancer, I'll explain my thirty-day long period. If the dreary poet had never asked about surgery, he would have been none the wiser.

But even with platonic male friends, the conversation was awkward. The Monday after my Saturday abortion, my friend Mike and I were sitting outside during our lunch break, while he daintily picked at a homemade sandwich and boyishly enthused about an idea he had for a t-shirt. He asked me what I'd done over the weekend. I began: "So, uh, this is kinda crazy ...  "

Mike's mouth fell open, and he set his sandwich down on his lap so slowly it felt like the eternal second right before a nuclear explosion. "Oh. My. God," he said, "Oh my God." As I started laughing, he caressed my back, and looking me meaningfully in the eye proclaimed, "You are the strongest. Person. I know," wrapping me into a full hug as I made weak, half-hearted protests.

To be fair, his reaction wasn't malicious, or demeaning; it was a compliment, I suppose, but it was far removed from what I actually said or felt. In Mike's mind the act of abortion had such powerful connotations. It was already defined as a Big Deal, and I was a hero, a survivor, a wounded victim. I wanted to be none of those. I felt like none of those. Sure, I wasn't too happy about dropping an unexpected $400, and my vagina was still sore like it had been repeatedly pounded. But this was like getting a Purple Heart for a masturbation-related wrist sprain.

My friend Allie was warned. When she'd had an abortion a year before me, she was treated by a sweet, tattooed, hippie nurse practitioner who provided her with some advice: "Do you have a boyfriend? Maybe don't tell boys. Sometimes boys don't know how to deal with this."

Allie's brief pregnancy -- the result of a job loss, a break-up and heavy drinking culminating in a one-night stand -- is not a topic she feels compelled to discuss with new people she's dating. "In the same way you don't want to tell someone how many people you've slept with," she says, "you can never predict when a guy's going to become a jerk. Abortion is just one of those hot-button issues for a dude to randomly be a jerk about."

But with the recent popularity of slapstick pregnancy comedies like "Knocked Up" and "Juno", you'd be surprised at how randomly "So have you ever been pregnant?" or "What would you do?" can invade a light conversation. And where anti-choice activists believe "confession" is a necessary step to absolve yourself of the "crime," and Christian sites like Care Net are full of essays about regretful women weeping about the mistakes of their youth to disapproving, divinely forgiving husbands, the pro-choice side isn't offering up any nifty guides titled So You're Eating a Cheeseburger With Your Man and Abortion Comes Up. That, at least for me, would've been more handy than all the safe-sex pamphlets stuffed in my hand when I exited the clinic. Between my desire to be honest and my fear of that honesty's ramifications, managing and packaging my abortion became more difficult than the act itself.

The first guy I dated seriously post-abortion found out inadvertently: blame exhaustion and too much booze and it being very, very early on New Year's Day 2008. He made a crack about a fetus, and I was too out-of-control wasted to get that he was joking. "Who told you about that?" I blurted. The conversation from there went smoothly enough, despite all the speech-slurring, until I said I'd felt no attachment or angst going into the clinic. He pounced: "How could you not have felt anything? I don't believe you! It's only natural to feel something."

We fought for an hour in bed before drifting to sleep during an impasse. It's upsetting when someone tells you that you couldn't possibly feel the way you feel. Or that what you felt -- relief -- is not a "natural" emotion. In the morning he apologized and said he hadn't articulated himself well. We went to brunch and took a walk. But some part of me still suspected that enough alcohol had brought out the sort of prejudices smart liberals know to be embarrassed by when sober.

Before my abortion I never would have imagined that seemingly antiquated ideas about gender -- that women need to be taken care of, that women always have binding ties to motherhood, that female body processes are somehow alien or scary -- would ever surface in the New Yorker-toting media men I was dating, even if just for a moment, even if just when drunk.

None of these men had faced abortion in any but the most abstract terms.

Then they did, more than once, and it was more than a bit depressing to realize that a fair number of liberal men still possess confining notions about women, and while they would argue wholeheartedly for reproductive rights in the political abstract, they might personally judge me in bed at night.

I still can't figure out why. Hell, the dreary poet graduated from Sarah Lawrence; I would bet money that he marched in at least one women's-rights protest. But then, none of these men had faced abortion in any but the most abstract terms; the hyperbolic political and cultural conceptions of the act were all they had. Or maybe my abortion just brought out some standard-issue male anxieties about pregnancy, fertility, the vagina in general. What I do know is that now, a year and a half later, I'm more terrified of abortion coming up on dates than I was a week after my operation. That's not to say I would lie. But I'll do whatever I can to avoid the question in the first place.

For what it's worth, one man took the news well right from the get-go: the fetus-daddy. By "well," I mean he based his reaction on the words coming out of my mouth and neither victimized me nor questioned my essential womanity. Of course, he also had the benefit of learning he wasn't going to be a twenty-four-year-old father in the same conversation. And over time, the boyfriend I told on New Year's eventually stopped looking constipated when I wisecracked about pregnancy, fetuses and abortions, though he never wanted to stop using condoms. Even though we were "in love." Even though it had been eight months. Even though I was taking my birth control with the timeliness of a church bell.

And weeks after my friend Mike held me on the park bench, he emailed an apology, explaining that he hadn't meant to treat me like a member of the wounded. But he went on to write that it must have been an "emotionally wrenching experience and full of heretofore unknown feelings that only a strong, self-possessed person could endure."

Months later, though, Mike and I were at a bar talking about stupid Facebook applications. I mentioned that on the Compare People question "Who would make a better mother?" I'd been voted against twenty-seven times. There was a pause and then I riffed, "Maybe I told too many people about my abortion?" He laughed, genuinely. Which was exactly what I was looking for.

This article originally appeared

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