Abortions Have Made Life Better for Millions Of Men: It's About Time to Speak Up in Support

It's time for pro-choice men to step up -- because our choices change their lives, too.

Photo Credit: DaveFayram

Pro-choice activists have been saying for at least three decades that the landscape of the abortion debate won't permanently change until women are brave enough to do what gays did 30 years ago -- emerge from the shadows, speak our truth and demand respect for our decisions.

One in three women in America will have an abortion at some point in her life. There are roughly twice as many abortions as LASIK procedures performed in any given year. Given that overwhelming prevalence, it's high time for women who have had abortions to come out, step up, stand by their choices -- and refuse delivery on all attempts to burden them with regret or shame.

The GOP's legislative "war on women" and Darcy Burner'scontroversial "take a stand" moment at Netroots Nation have brought renewed vigor to solving the invisibility problem, sparking new campaigns to encourage women to reject right-wing attempts to shame and silence them. It's important work, with huge potential to change the way we talk about abortion for decades to come.

But through all of this fresh energy and determination, there's one set of big, deep voices that's conspicuously missing.

We need to hear from the men, too.

For every single woman who's ever had an abortion, there's a man somewhere in the story. For every woman who was able to delay motherhood until a better moment, or improve her existing kids' chances by not enlarging her brood, or end a pregnancy that was doomed to end in tragedy and pain, there's also a man out there who is not a father today -- or is a better father to the kids he has -- because a woman he was involved with had the means to make this decision.

Forty years of feminism notwithstanding, the reality in American politics and culture is that our national discussion around this issue won't materially change until men understand just how invested they are in this issue -- and then stand up with us to insist that our reproductive rights be protected and preserved.

It's not that there aren't plenty of male voices in this debate already. They're booming in loud and strong from the anti-choice side. We're getting an earful from the Catholic bishops (whose moral authority on any matter relating to sexuality should rightly be a national joke by now), Mormon elders, evangelical preachers, and pontificating legislators. Out front of the clinics, the furious guy who is raging because "the bitch killed my baby, and I didn't have a say in it" is a stereotype on picket lines from coast to coast. Men who think they have the right to control women's fertility are outraged when they find out that they have no rights at all -- and over the years, their anger has been a potent accelerant to the flames of anti-choice furor.

We've heard more than enough from them.

But even as we're getting an aggrieved earful from the full chorus of patriarchal bullies, our own pro-choice men have receded into the background of the conversation, to the point where they have no voice at all. Worse: these sweet guys think that by holding their tongues, they're doing us a favor. After all, they understand that getting pregnant is a lot like that old joke about your ham-and-eggs breakfast: the chicken was involved, but the pig was committed. At the end of the day, the decision to carry on or terminate a pregnancy must, by moral right, remain in women's hands -- because while men are involved, women are committed, body and soul. 

Men still enjoy the luxury of being able to choose their level of parental engagement. Some walk away and never see their baby. Others dedicate the rest of their lives to their kid's welfare. Which path they choose is totally their decision, and they can (and do) reconsider that relationship at any time, at will.

Women have no such choice. Once we're pregnant, we're in it, full-on, for the next 20 years, whether we want to be or not. Since we don't enjoy the wide leeway men are granted on the engagement front, it's essential that we maintain control of the one choice we do have -- that is, whether or not to go forward with the pregnancy at all. To a degree that's simply not true for men, we have a few short weeks in the first trimester of pregnancy to decide, once and for all, whether we're in or out. Once we make that call, there's no taking it back or changing our minds. We will live with that decision day in and day out for the rest of our lives.

Pro-choice men get this, and that's why they've stepped so far back from the political conversation. And pro-choice women have encouraged their silence, because we've learned the hard way that whenever we get men involved in these discussions, we're vastly raising the risk that some of them are going to try to assert control over our choices.

But it's time for both men and women to rethink this hands-off position. Recent research has found that the vast majority of women who have abortions don't make the decision on their own. We almost always turn to our partners, family members, spiritual advisers, and doctors as we weigh our options. And of those supporting players, it's our male partners who have the biggest stake in the decision, and play the biggest role -- which is why, better than 80 percent of the time, our partners not only know about the abortion; they also support it. 

Just as we never hear from millions of women who have never regretted their decision to terminate a pregnancy, the millions of men whose lives have been unquestionably changed for the better by an abortion decision are also rendered completely invisible -- often, even to themselves. When I ask male friends about the role abortion has played in their lives, they get quiet, shy and furtive. "I supported my girlfriend through an abortion -- but I really don't think it's my story to tell," one told me. Or they simply don't make the connection at all. "Oh. My. God," another one said, his eyes getting wide with sudden realization. "If she hadn't had that abortion, I'd have been a father right now!" It was an ultimate "duh!" moment, as though he'd never really reckoned the full implications of this fact until just that moment.

The thing of it is, gentlemen: You do have a story to tell. You didn't make the final decision, but we know that in the overwhelming majority of cases, you were intimately involved in the conversations that led up to it. You were most likely the one who drove her to the clinic, and drove her home again. And the choice not to become a father, right at that particular moment, has had a major impact on every day of your life and every major decision you've made ever since.

Think about it. How would your life be different today if she hadn't chosen abortion? Would you be co-parenting with a woman you knew wasn't right for you? Or fathering more kids than your time and resources responsibly allow? Are there educational opportunities you would have had to skip, reducing your earnings for the rest of your life? Or career breaks that wouldn't have happened if you'd been encumbered with a kid (or another kid)? 

Your life is the way it is right now because your female partner was able to make that choice when she needed to. If that hadn't been possible, you'd be having a very different day today.

That's why we need you to speak up now. What's at stake isn't just women's liberty -- it's yours, too. You don't have to tell the whole story. The details aren't anybody's business but yours and hers (and that's why abortion is legally a privacy matter). But we need to hear you say, "My life is better today because a woman made that choice. I supported her in making it, and we have no regrets." Every time you say that out loud, you are doing something that shifts the gravity of our national conversation a little bit for the better.

We need you in this conversation again, for a lot of reasons.

We need your credibility. As long as you keep silent, that small but screeching clutch of right-wing men will continue to command far more attention than the millions of embattled women who are trying to protect their reproductive rights. It's sad but true that male voices and interests still carry more weight in our culture than female ones do -- especially with the kind of patriarchal men who have chosen this as the political hill they're going to die on. We can't tell those guys to STFU. We've been trying for decades, but their sexism totally deafens them to voices in our higher register.

But you will be heard. If you start making it clear that this is an issue that matters to all men -- and that you're willing to defend it, because it matters to you very personally -- they will at least be able to hear you and respect you in a way that they will never hear or respect us. You bring authority that we can't. And that, right there, will change the dialogue dramatically.

We need your political support.As long as abortion is seen as simply a "women's issue," politicians can keep shunting it off to the side as a "special interest" matter -- the kind of thing Serious People don't really have to deal with -- rather than an everyday medical procedure that ensures the liberty and prosperity of every fertile adult American of either gender. If you guys start owning how important abortion has been in determining the path of your own lives, it stops being a women's issue and becomes a human right issue --  a non-negotiable matter of equality and opportunity for everybody.

We need your social support. I was in the room when Darcy Burner asked the women of Netroots Nation to stand if they'd had an abortion -- and then asked the rest of the crowd to "stand with these women." According to one woman who stood, "Having everyone else stand afterwards, saying, in essence, 'You are not alone' was incredibly powerful." She said she felt like 50 pounds had been taken off her shoulders. That's how heavy this burden has been for us. It's deformed us, silenced us and changed the way we view ourselves and our lives.

You can help us put that burden down for good. We, the women you love -- the ones who've mothered you, put up with you, slept with you, and been adored by you; the ones you've lived with, married and made witness to your lives -- have carried this burden of shame and isolation alone for far too long. More often than not, you have been our partners in making these decisions, and our main source of support in carrying them out. And your lives were changed by that, just as much as ours were. Abortion is your issue, your story and your fight, too. And when you stand up with us -- and for us -- in defending that story and fighting that fight, you bring with you the power to transform the entire conversation for everyone.

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Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of AlterNet's Vision page. Follow her on Twitter, or subscribe to AlterNet's Vision newsletter for weekly updates.