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Abortion affects men, too

Abortion is often treated exclusively as a women’s health issue. And let’s face it, the women’s perspective is more important.

Monica Heisey

Monica Heisey

Photos via Wikimedia Commons

Abortion is often treated exclusively as a women’s health issue. Most of the research on the topic deals with the female party involved in an unwanted pregnancy. This is in part because, let’s face it, the women’s perspective is more important, as it’s ultimately her body and her choice, but also because the female party involved in the abortion is the patient seeking medical intervention. So doctors and researchers can reach out to them directly for feedback, surveys, etc. with greater ease. Contacting the so-called “impregnators” is not so simple.

There is precious little research into the male experience of abortion; Google mostly coughs up pro-life fear-mongering sites about men manipulated by liberal she-devils into agreeing to abortions, who now live haunted by visions of the blessed angel-children they cruelly murdered. While thankfully devoid of that kind of thing, academia doesn’t fare much better, information-wise. A 1999 study by psychiatric and obstetric researchers at University Hospital in Umeå, Sweden outlines why: “Most studies of legal abortion are focused on the women and when abortion and contraception are discussed, attention is mostly centered on the role and responsibility of the woman. Hospital staff often meet only the woman and not the man in cases of legal abortion, which can result in the risk of abortion being regarded solely as a female issue. Thus, the participation of the man remains largely invisible.”

Abortion is one of the last great taboos in Western society. Because of this (and more direct campaigns of misinformation from right-wing and/or religious groups), misconceptions surrounding the topic abound. We don’t want to talk about abortions, so women who have experienced them are discouraged from speaking about it. Men are never even asked—at least, not usually—so we asked some.

For this piece we spoke with six men who had experienced the termination of a sexual and/or romantic partner’s pregnancy. All of them now in their late 20s and early 30s, they were a median age of 25 at the time of their abortions. Most of them were in long-term relationships with the woman they impregnated; one had been on two drunk dates. About half of the men accompanied their partner to the clinic. One was not told about the abortion until after it had occurred. All of the men said they deferred to their partner’s choice and would have respected whatever she chose, but recalled an intense feeling of relief when the women involved decided to abort. None of the men felt ready to be fathers at the time of their respective partner's pregnancies.

Although six men’s stories can hardly be seen as a representative sample, the similarities between their experiences and those reported by the men in the Swedish studies were striking. Because some of the only times we hear about abortion is in Very Special Episodes or emotional magazine true stories, it’s easy to conceive of it as a massive event, life-altering in its trauma; the memory of it and What Could Have Been rippling into the future for both parties. As with many major life events, the reality is a lot more mundane.

Perhaps because of the lack of research, there’s a pervasive stereotype that women often go through unwanted pregnancies without—if not abandoned by—their male partners. Abortion clinics on television and in films are presented as a refuge for fallen women, there alone or with a supportive female friend. However, of the 250 women seeking terminations in the Swedish study, only 29 did not feel comfortable giving the survey to their (somewhat jarringly termed) “impregnators,” and more than half were accompanied to the clinic. Indeed, 89 percent of the 75 male respondents were involved in stable, satisfied relationships with the women seeking abortions. The men tended to be in their late 20s, a few years older than their pregnant partners, and of a comfortable socio-economic background. The men I spoke to ticked these boxes as well.

Paul, now 28, was at drama school when his girlfriend—a classmate—got pregnant. He said the experience was “a bit like being painted out, unintentionally."

"She wanted to keep it quiet, so only a few people knew she was pregnant anyway and then when it came to the termination, it was equally quiet," he told me. "She wouldn't let me go to the clinic with her or anything, and also didn't want to speak to me for a bit around the time it was happening, so having no one to talk to about it while being acutely aware that a possible child was exiting the world was very very strange. When she came back to school, I had to pretend she’d been ill. The experience was very much about bottling something up. But the knowledge of it was really upsetting to me for a very long time. Emotionally, I think it's much harder on the guy than people are aware.”

This concern was echoed by all six interviewees. For more than a few, our conversations marked the first time they’d spoken to someone about the experience who wasn’t their partner or close friend. They all said they didn’t really talk about it with friends or family, at the time or after.

Matthew, now 31, was 25 when he found out the girl he’d been on two dates with was pregnant. “I've barely talked about it, which is one of the reasons I was eager to discuss it with you. It's a significant event in my life but I've hardly felt like there were any appropriate times for me to bring it up.” 

Matthew was in a rental car on the way to his hometown in Northwestern Ontario when she called. He was in a dead zone with no cell reception. “Her voicemail message was simple, just 'you need to call me back.' I've done that drive many times since then, and I always seem to notice the little side road I pulled into, somewhere near Sudbury, to return her call. She explained she’d tested positively, twice, and her cousin was going to take her to the clinic the next day. I remember deliberately pressing my voice down into a calm, reassuring tone but my blood was pumping in big, scared gushes. I told her that, of course, I'd respect any decision she made and that if she wanted to wait a bit before making up her mind, or if she wanted to decide to keep it, I would support her. I felt a surge of guilty relief when she reassured me that she had made up her mind already.”

While the male experience of pregnancy and early parenthood is an area of research that is growing, information and statistics on this subject remain sparse. In the few studies regarding men’s reaction to the news of a desired pregnancy, their responses mirrored one of the most common (and better-documented) responses of newly-pregnant women: ambivalence. Pride combined with fear, happiness combined with dread—both men and women tend to feel a mixture of angst and excitement upon the discovery of a hoped-for pregnancy. Perhaps more surprisingly, according to the Swedish study, these feelings are almost exactly the same as those reported by both men and women confronted with an unwanted pregnancy. Men and women’s reasons for wanting an abortion were also the same: wanting children later, wanting to be able to provide for their family at a level they felt comfortable with, being too young, or the more abstract “it’s not the right time.”

What little research there is regarding male experience of full-term pregnancy serves to highlight the similarity between men’s experience of that process and what my interviewees had to say about abortion. One UK study found that prospective fathers “frequently spoke of their desire to be 'involved' with their partner's pregnancy and yet reported difficulty in engaging with its reality,” a common strain throughout the stories of all the men I spoke to.

Paul, 29, and his partner, now 26, discovered they were pregnant two years ago. He says: “I felt especially stupid because even though we were both tacitly agreeing to that lack of caution, when we found out we were pregnant it became a reality for one of us physically in a way I couldn't ever understand so I immediately also felt powerless. Throughout the wait for the procedure I tried to treat my emotions as secondary and just play a support role. I felt lucky that there was never any disagreement on how to proceed so we could just basically work out together how to cope in that time. I felt guilty because I got to enjoy all the things that were inevitably hilarious or heartwarming in such a serious situation, but when reality felt heavy and difficult it didn't land on me the same way it did for her because it wasn't a part of my body and a scary procedure I had to go through. Trying to empathize almost felt patronizing.” Recalling the day of his girlfriend’s abortion, Matthew similarly recalled a feeling of detachment concurrent with a desire to be closer to the experience: “I didn't feel guilty or scared that week, just separated from reality by one degree.

Photo by Frankie Roberto

Isolation—from reality, their partner, and a network of support—was a common theme in the stories I heard. All interviewees reported staying silent or relatively quiet about the experience at the time, and found themselves attempting to process it years later, some going to therapy, others finally confiding in close friends. One said an early-20s abortion led to him discovering MDMA. Another ran into his former partner at a bar two years after the procedure; they left their friends, walked around the city for a few hours, and cried together about it for the first time. I was again struck by the amount of overlap in experience from such a small sample group. For instance, more than one interviewee had had an intense, contemplative experience in front of plastinated fetuses at the Body Worlds exhibit. Said Matthew: “The month [of the abortion] I went to Body Worlds at the Ontario Science Center. I spent ten minutes looking at a month-old fetus, trying to decide if it was meaninglessly tiny or not. It looked small but not that small.”

In studies of the male role in full-term pregnancy, new fathers often report feeling “helpless” or detached from the experience. Paul describes waiting for his girlfriend at the Morgantaler Clinic in Toronto: “I had waves of concern and self-reassurance from when I found out up until and including the day of, trying to keep perspective without discounting the seriousness of what we were going through and how that reality was more inescapable for her second to second. In the waiting room I flipped back and forth, reminding myself that this was the right decision, that we had arrived at together, supported by professional opinion, then worrying horribly the longer it took knowing that it must feel horrible, that I'll never understand really what was happening to her and that it wasn't fair that I sat in a room with reading materials while her body went through that.”

Most of the men reported still thinking about the experience years later, largely due to a failure to process events at the time they occurred. Said Matthew, “I think about it less now, but when my fiance and I talk about starting our own family and having babies, my mind moves pretty quickly back to that summer. I wish I had talked about it more, because I carried some serious unfocused guilt around for a good few years after, and it definitely changed the way I dated and behaved with new partners. I'm not saying that I kept it quiet because it's a gross, shameful secret. I just think that men, especially when they're not especially intimate with their partners, aren't afforded much space to articulate their feelings. That's fine because our experience is comparably very different from the woman's, but it's still a strange emotional limbo.”

The Swedish study and my conversations with these men paint a picture of couples separated by the very feelings, concerns, and sense of isolation that make them mirrors of each other. Much of the contemporary academic research surrounding pregnancies completed or terminated suggests that while women and men often feel disconnected from their partners during the experience, the emotions leading them to feel disconnected from each other are almost exactly the same. While the men involved in abortions often feel isolated from their partners due to an inability to relate to the physical reality of the pregnancy, many pregnant women report feeling the same way from conception right through to the birth experience. Wanting to help but being unable or ill-equipped or unsure how to do so, both parties stay quiet, stewing in their own ambivalence, stunting both their and their partner’s ability to process what is occurring.This lack of communication can hardly be considered the fault of the prospective parents (or non-parents, as the case may be). Rather, it is one of many troubling symptoms of a culture that wants abortion done quickly, quietly, and in shame, if it must be done at all.

Men struggling to help their partners through a termination or finding themselves unable to process the experience themselves is not the most important or critical abortion-related problem today, but it gestures toward a pressing need for more frequent and more public conversations about abortion, from more perspectives. Unwanted pregnancy is not a topic that should be discussed only behind closed doors in Planned Parenthood between women and doctors. Equipping boys and girls with an education that explains pregnancy and contraceptive responsibility as an issue for both genders (with deference always to a woman’s right to choose) is crucial, as is the establishment of adequate counseling options for couples and individuals of both genders facing abortions. Pregnancy and abortion doesn’t happen to women alone, and we need to be equipping both genders with the tools to talk about and deal with it.

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