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The Complicated Place of Men in the Abortion Debates

Both sides—pro-choice and pro-life—indulge in simplistic clichés about males.
July 13, 2022
The Complicated Place of Men in the Abortion Debates
The Supreme Court building is reflected into a mans glasses as Supporters of Judge Amy Coney Barrett and pro-choice supporters gather outside of the US Supreme Court as the Senate is expected to confirm President Trump's Supreme Court nominee on Capitol Hill on October 26, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Men have always had an uneasy place in the abortion debate. For the pro-choice side, pro-choice men are welcome allies—but ones who have a dubious right to speak on the issue, rather than defer to female voices, and who can always be called out en masse for various sexist offenses. Men are also, by virtue of their gender, linked to the patriarchy that is taken to be the force behind abortion bans and restrictions—laws that pro-choice activists see as both a push for male power over women and an illustration of male privilege. It’s a view pithily summed up by Gloria Steinem decades ago: “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

On the pro-life side, many advocates are understandably concerned about giving the impression that their cause is all about men telling women what they can and cannot do with their bodies. That stereotype persists despite the presence of many prominent women in the pro-life movement—including the activist who got Donald Trump to commit to nominating Supreme Court justices opposed to abortion, Marjorie Dannenfelser—and has been boosted by such bad optics as the pictures of President George W. Bush signing a bill banning partial-birth abortions as an all-male group of lawmakers looks on. Pro-life advocates of both sexes are also anxious to distance themselves from punitive or stigmatizing attitudes toward sexually active women; ironically, the result is that they often cast men as the villains in the story of abortion.

But as is often the case, the truth is far more complicated than both pro-choice and pro-life clichés.

The simplistic idea that pro-life advocacy is a misogynistic male power play has been challenged many times. For one thing, women and men have fairly similar views on abortion; in recent years opinions may have shifted toward slightly more men holding anti-abortion beliefs, but this trend may be due primarily to the growing partisan split between the sexes with more men lined up on the Republican side and more women on the Democratic side. And while it is possible that some women in the pro-life movement are extreme traditionalists who believe that women belong only in the domestic sphere and see abortion bans as a step toward that goal, it is difficult to believe that this is the agenda of high-achieving professional women like, say, Amy Coney Barrett, or of self-professed pro-life feminists who believe that society shouldn’t force women to choose between motherhood and other goals.

Of course the legality of abortion implicates women’s bodily autonomy. But this is not because of “the patriarchy”; it is because women (leaving aside for the moment polemics about transgender-inclusive language) are the ones who get pregnant. The correct answer to “What if men could get pregnant?” is, “Then the word ‘men’ would mean what ‘women’ means now.” Women’s reproductive biology—the fact that they conceive, gestate, and give birth—self-evidently limits their autonomy and freedom. (This is especially true when the conception is unwanted; but even wanted and planned pregnancy curtails the woman’s ability to engage in a wide range of activities.) The impact of pregnancy and childbirth on women’s bodies has no parallel for men. In this sense, birth control and, more controversially, abortion are tools of female autonomy. This does not mean, however, that most people who find abortion unacceptable are opposed to women’s liberty as such. There is a genuine belief that abortion takes a human (and not just “potential”) life and that the value of life must be weighed against that of female bodily autonomy.

The claim that abortion would be uncontroversial if pregnancy happened to men—or let’s say, to avoid the terminological paradox, to the traditionally dominant sex—rests on some kneejerk assumptions about the extent to which even traditional societies have prioritized male comfort and well-being. (By the logic of Steinem’s famous dictum, one could assert that if men got drafted, war would be outlawed.) Men’s rights activists who argue that it’s men whom society treats as “disposable” are a mirror image of radical feminist grievance-mongering, but just as the radical feminists make some valid points, so too do the men’s rights activists—for instance, it is true that we casually tolerate a dramatic gender disparity in dangerous jobs, with a roughly 10:1 ratio of male to female on-the-job fatalities.

The treatment of paternity claims also provides a counterpoint to the notion that our society treats male interests as sacrosanct. Courts have held, for instance, that males who are victims of statutory rape (sometimes as young as 12), sexual assault (for instance, while passed out from drinking), or bizarre trickery (such as a woman retrieving a condom used during oral sex and using a syringe to inseminate herself—yes, an allegation in an actual legal case) are still liable for child support. This is not to say that, as denizens of unsavory “manosphere” forums sometimes claim, there is an epidemic of sperm theft by evil women in America (there is not); or that child support payments are equivalent to carrying a pregnancy to term against one’s will (they are not). It is simply to say that when it comes to the well-being of children, courts and politicians have not been particularly deferential to male self-determination.

While pro-choice advocates often cast abortion as a matter of gender equality—allowing women, like men, to have sex with no physical consequences—others, such as South Carolina attorney Melanie McCulley, have made the controversial argument that if women have access to abortion, equal protection requires men to have a limited right to waive all paternal rights and obligations. At least some feminists, such as the late Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women from 1974 to 1977, have also espoused this view. But more often than not, arguments for “male choice” have met with “You play, you pay” rejoinders uncannily reminiscent of anti-abortion language criticized by pro-choicers as misogynistic when directed at women.

The rhetoric blaming abortion on men who exploit women is just as misleading. It sometimes comes from pro-lifers I highly respect; David French, for instance, brought up this in our recent debate on abortion on the Unpopulist podcast:

What I saw with my own eyes with classmates and peers was . . . something a lot more complicated than empowered young women making choices with their own bodies. What I saw was boyfriends relentlessly pressuring girlfriends to abort children that they did not want to abort. I saw parents relentlessly pressuring daughters to abort when they didn’t want to abort. So what I saw was not so much something that was this celebration of autonomy but was often an additional instrument of pressure and an additional instrument of control.

That—in essence, what was happening was you had these men who were saying ‘I like the idea of sex without responsibility.’ And at the instant responsibility intrudes—whether it was through failure of birth control or refusal to use birth control—we’ve got an out here and I can tell my girlfriend to get an abortion. And I’ve known a number of people who got abortions in those circumstances and it was a shattering experience for them.

Obviously, everyone’s experience is personal. Mine includes a former boyfriend who, several years after we parted ways, learned that an on-and-off girlfriend had had an abortion without his knowledge; it was shattering for him, especially since, while this man supported legal abortion, he was personally pro-life and had told me more than once that he was determined never to be responsible for an abortion. (That’s an attitude I encountered from several other men I dated, as well as male friends.) What I saw with my own eyes also includes more than one man making life-changing decisions—such as leaving a deeply loved but non-remunerative field to take a dull but stable job—because the alternative was the termination of a pregnancy. This isn’t to say that these men were victims, only that there’s a wide and varied range of experience out there.

There’s also the question of the lens—sympathetic or not—through which we see people’s actions. When a female college student gets pregnant in a casual sexual relationship and decides to have an abortion because having a baby would derail her academic career, pro-choicers are likely to see her as empowered, while many pro-lifers will see her as a tragic victim seduced by a false ideal of liberation and/or by a man. On the other hand, a college guy who freaks out at the news of a girlfriend’s pregnancy and pleads that he’s not ready for fatherhood is likely be cast as a selfish, exploitative bully by pro-lifers, and even pro-choicers are unlikely to view him with much sympathy.

Do some men pressure women into abortions? No doubt. But it’s worth noting that, in a 2004 survey of over 1,200 abortion patients by the Guttmacher Institute, only one percent said that pressure by a partner or by parents was the most important factor in their decision to terminate the pregnancy, while 14 percent of women said that the husband or partner wanting them to have an abortion was one of several factors.

Studies on men and abortion—which are, admittedly, fairly scant—show a far more complex and nuanced picture. Overall, both men and women report both positive and negative emotions in the aftermath of abortion; male grief is not uncommon, though men are likely to keep it to themselves. Often, men feel frustrated by their lack of input in the decision. Many have at least occasional thoughts about the child that might have been. In the pioneering 1984 study Men and Abortion, sociologist Arthur Shostack found that a majority of abortion patients’ male partners wished they’d had access to counseling or support groups.

A 1993 article in the Bergen Record (which I came across while writing a 2000 piece on men and reproductive rights) makes it very clear that men are not immune from the emotional fallout of decisions about abortion. Take the story of “Matthew,” a computer programmer whose girlfriend informed him that she was pregnant:

She offered Matthew an ultimatum: Marry me or I’ll move back home to Ohio. At 27, he was terrified of marriage, so he proposed sending money instead. She refused it. Two weeks later, she called to say the prospect of single motherhood at age 27 was too scary. Matthew offered to raise the child, all the while privately wondering if he could actually handle it. She scoffed at his offer, sure he wouldn’t really do it. In the next phone call, she announced: The baby no longer exists. Matthew was floored. “I couldn’t concentrate at work. . . . I felt so confused and so guilty. I wondered if I should have married her and if I’d abandoned her. I wondered if I’d ever get over it.

The experience of not being told about the pregnancy and only finding out about the abortion can be particularly difficult. Again, this doesn’t mean that women are the villains in those stories. Some may have reasons to fear the man’s reaction; some may be struggling with their own emotional confusion and trying to avoid wrenching conversations. The same 1993 feature in the Record includes a first-person account by a man, “Bill,” who at the age of 25 was overjoyed when his girlfriend of two years became pregnant, then crushed when she told him she had had a miscarriage—and crushed even more when he came across a receipt from an abortion clinic. The girlfriend, who was 20, apologized and told him she didn’t feel ready for motherhood. Somehow, Bill wrote, “we worked it out.” Ten months later she got pregnant again and assured Bill that she wanted the baby, even though (he claimed) he told her that it was fine if she didn’t. After about six weeks, they had a “big fight” about buying a house. The girlfriend went to stay with a friend “to clear her head.” Two weeks later, there was a call from her sister: she had had another abortion. Bill was utterly devastated; after their breakup several weeks later, he wrote, he lost all interest in sex and didn’t date for a year.

Was this one-sided narrative entirely truthful? Was Bill leaving out details unfavorable to himself, such as abusive behavior? It’s hard to say. He admitted, for example, that he trashed the apartment in a fit of grief and rage after learning of his girlfriend’s second abortion, then drank himself into a stupor before spending several days cleaning up the mess. Was the violence and drinking an extreme reaction to an extreme situation or a clue to bigger issues? For what it’s worth, by the time he recounted this story, he was happily married with an adopted stepchild and a baby on the way.

Stories like these can easily become fodder for misogynistic narratives of women as vindictive baby killers. Yet the truth is that neither sex has a monopoly on bad or irresponsible behavior. Assuming that Bill’s account was reasonably accurate, his girlfriend may well have been simply young, immature, and overwhelmed by the prospect of parenthood. But surely the same can be true of a man who disappears after learning that his girlfriend is pregnant, or tries to blow her off with “maybe it’s not mine.”

Another issue that comes up in men’s stories of dealing with their partners’ abortions is being expected to “shut down” or “turn on” their emotional bonding with their unborn children depending on whether the woman wants to carry the pregnancy to term. Take this extraordinary personal account written recently by John Wood Jr., a leader of Braver Angels, an organization that seeks to counteract political polarization in America:

When I was still a teenager I found myself in a relationship that resulted in a pregnancy. My partner was adamant—she wanted to have her baby. How could I argue? It was her choice, I believed. And on some level I wanted to have the baby as well.

But I was also scared, more scared than I had ever been of anything. I remember lying awake in my bed that night thinking. My heart raced and my sweat was cold. I was a mediocre student whose performance never lived up to his potential. I had never had a job. How could I, with a partner little more prepared than I was, raise a child?

After a sleepless night, Wood came to the realization that he would love his child and do his best to be a good father. Then, the phone rang: It was his girlfriend, saying that she had “talked to [her] mom” and had changed her mind about having the baby. They would “get it taken care of,” she said, and declined Wood’s offer to go with her to the clinic.

Wood, who writes that he “breathed a sigh of relief . . . and uncertainty,” sees this story today as both a “hopeful argument for choice” and a “tearful tale in favor of life.” He realizes that both he and his then-girlfriend might not have realized their dreams, of both work and family, if she had not had the abortion; he also wonders if they could have had their own family, and if he could have been “a better person . . . and sooner” if he had followed through on his vow to be a father to his child.

What struck me most, though, was the emotional rollercoaster of taking a cue from the woman’s choice and accepting fatherhood, only to have to switch off those feelings when her choice suddenly changes.

An attorney I interviewed for my 2000 article who was doing pro bono work on child custody and shared parenting issues and was sympathetic to men’s rights perspectives (admittedly, ones from a much saner time) told me that the expectation of such “switching” was “a fundamental denial of men’s humanity.” That strikes me as taking it a bit far—and besides, women, too, may have to switch their maternal feelings on and off when their circumstances change and their choice has to change accordingly. But very few people, pro-life or pro-choice, deny that abortion is often a wrenching experience for women. Men’s emotions are much more easily dismissed.

For many pro-choice people I know, men and women alike, the abortion issue boils down entirely to the question of a woman’s control over her body, not just in the philosophical sense of bodily autonomy but in a much more practical sense: It’s the woman who has to put up with the physical discomforts and risks of pregnancy and childbirth. This inescapable fact is indeed central. However much an unwanted child can affect a man’s circumstances, we consider bodily autonomy and integrity far more essential than control over other aspects of one’s life. This is why “equal protection” arguments about abortion, from either the feminist or the men’s rights perspective, inevitably fail: Women and men are not similarly situated with regard to pregnancy, and there is no way to resolve the issue with full parity without being “unfair” to one or the other.

But that doesn’t mean men’s relationship to pregnancy and childbearing should be dismissed as entirely trivial and inconsequential—particularly in a culture that seeks to encourage men to be as involved in parenting as women. How do we tell men to have an equal emotional investment in a child while also telling them that they should have no say, not just legally but morally, in what happens before birth?

This is not an argument for banning abortion; it’s an argument for making it as rare as possible and prioritizing its avoidance. It’s also an argument for not losing sight of men’s fundamental humanity in the abortion debate, whether on the pro-life or the pro-choice side.

After the fall of Roe, it’s easy for pro-choicers to think that we are living in a moment of rampant misogyny when women’s basic human rights are being ripped away. (If you ask, Aren’t we?, my answer is no; I think the right to abortion at least early in the pregnancy is essential, but women’s rights are also not reducible to abortion, and some countries with near-total abortion bans fare well on other measures of gender equality.) It is also natural for pro-lifers to think that they should win women’s hearts and minds first and foremost. Thus, neither side is particularly interested in a “men are people, too” message. But that’s a mistake. The abortion debate is already polarizing enough along political and religious lines. We should not let it promote more polarization along gender lines as well.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.