On Men and Abortion

by Cara on September 6, 2007

in abortion, feminism, patriarchy, pregnancy, reproductive justice, women’s health

Courtney Martin has a really interesting article up at AlterNet about why men should be included in the abortion discussion.

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.”

. . . 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.

I think that this is a touchy subject for most pro-choice women and reproductive rights activists. I’ll admit that when I saw the title of this piece, even though I’ve previously read Martin’s work and know that she is a strong feminist, I was worried and slightly alarmed. It’s probably a knee-jerk reaction: like she alludes to in her article, when a mention is made of men’s involvement with abortion, it’s usually a hysterical cry of WHAT ABOUT THE MEN???? Martin does an excellent job here, though the early comments certainly do prove my suspicions valid.

And that, I think, is where the real problem comes in. All of us appreciate our male allies. And I think that privately, most of us recognize that abortion can and often does have an emotional impact on men involved. I have to say that I’m heartened to learn that men’s main concern is for their sexual partners, not for themselves or for the fetus. That’s excellent news. But in a climate where it’s almost impossible to discuss abortion without hearing cries of what about the BABY? and what about a MAN’S choice?, it does make the possibility of effectively incorporating men’s experiences without diminishing those of women seem like a pipe-dream.

On a political level, there’s the conflicting need for men to support the pro-choice cause (in the same, highly unfortunate way that whites have to support POC civil rights movements for them to gain any real political clout) and the knowledge that abortion is a women’s issue where men’s views ought to be kept at the periphery. I think that most of us have said or thought at some point that the men who so feverishly oppose abortion do not really get a say on the issue– they don’t have wombs, they’ll never be pregnant, so they don’t get to tell us what to do. I honestly do believe this. And yet saying it, I think, has the ability of alienating non-feminist men, who don’t completely “get it,” and yet nonetheless still support abortion rights.

So where to do we go from there? How do we honestly appreciate our male allies while simultaneously acknowledging that our male opponents are sticking their noses where they don’t belong? Is it even possible?

And to go back to this article, what about the men who experience an abortion through their partners? This area gets even trickier, with so many anti-choicers claiming that a man should have veto rights over an abortion. I think that all of us agree that a pregnancy decision should ultimately and completely be up to the pregnant woman. I think that we would also agree that men coercing women into an abortion or into continuing a pregnancy is absolutely wrong. But what about couples who are loving and supportive and experience an unintended pregnancy together? While we still expect the decision to be up to her, it’s hard to advocate shutting the man out of the discussion entirely.

I’m also definitely upset at the concept that men are not allowed in the room during the abortion. I hope to never be pregnant, but if it ever did occur that I needed an abortion, I would want my husband there with me. This raises the question: in trying to shut men out, are we also harming women?

And how do we respect men’s feelings on the issue and recognize their real emotional reactions, while simultaneously acknowledging that they do not hold the same clout, or generally even the same intensity, as women’s?  Is it even prudent to discuss these issues when women’s feelings are still struggling to be taken seriously?  But if not now, when?  Is waiting until women’s rights are more generally accepted self-defeating, since we need men’s support to even get to that point?

As you can probably see, I’m still working all of these issues out. I don’t have the answers. And I’m not sure how possible it is to have a respectful conversation on the matter (see comments on AlterNet that have used the opportunity of Martin’s honesty to bash feminists, or ask whether or not men should get a “say” in whether or not a woman has an abortion). But I’m going to throw it out there and see what happens. What are your thoughts?


1 Roy September 6, 2007 at 12:12 pm

I think that the key to having a polite conversation is for bloggers to keep tackling the issue in a respectful way. Alternet always seems to draw the asshats out of the woodwork, whenever a feminist article gets put up. I don’t think I’ve ever read an article on there that didn’t have a bunch of jerks using it as an excuse to get up on a soapbox.

More on topic:
I think that the kneejerk reaction is pretty understandable. Given how often the “what about the MEN!” comments come up in a negative context, even I find myself inclined to be on guard when something looks like it’s heading that way. I’m not sure what the perfect solution would look like. I think that you’re on the right track though- recognizing that there’s a place there for men who’re trying to be supportive or working through legitimate feelings while noting that the ultimate choice belongs to the women involved.

2 akeeyu September 6, 2007 at 5:06 pm

You know, the way my husband and I talk about matters like this is pretty straightforward: He listens to what I have to say, I listen to what he has to say, and then I make a decision.

I listen to, value and respect his opinions, but frankly, as the owner of the only uterus in the relationship, I have veto power over all things uterine.

I have no problem with the idea of including men in the conversations about abortion, but I have a massive problem with the idea of including men in the *decisions* about abortion.

3 Anne September 7, 2007 at 1:57 am

I believe all things to be relative. That said, in ideal situations two people ought to be able to talk with one another about their wants, about their plans for their individual futures and the future of their relationship. (One-night-stands and hook-ups aside.)

I often think about the man’s role in a pregnancy, although rarely does it come up in conversation.

It is one thing to actively seek pregnancy.

Unplanned pregnancy is a different issue that must be handled differently.

For instance, I wonder about those men who are in relationships or who hook up and for whatever the reason, the woman becomes pregnant. As the sole carrier of the fetus, obviously the woman has more at stake and should have the final decision.

(This screams of a “what about the men?!” situation, however) What of those men who do not want to continue the pregnancy/be fathers?

It is a complicated issue that I feel must be solved on a case-by-case basis.

In the end, my thoughts are as muddled as yours.

Certainly the woman has the final say.

I have experienced enough to know that a committed couple will have discussed the issue of family planning/having children and those who have not, when faced will an unplanned pregnancy, get shoved into talking about it. Hopefully a resolution can be made between the two individuals concerned.

If not, (in an ideal world) even if the man would like to keep the pregnancy and the woman does not, the woman cannot be forced to carry to term. At the same time, though, if the woman would like to carry to term and keep the child and the man does not, that is her decision and the man should have no part in it if he does not wish it.

This then would speak to issues of child support (if the woman would like to push for that) and our current judicial system. It also speaks to issues of contraception being affordable and accessible, and to abortion being affordable and accessible. And to issues of child care in the US, family leave time with employers….

The thing with social issues, I’ve found, is that there is no one single issue you can focus on. Every issue is interconnected to at least one other issue.

These are my thoughts for now.

4 dew September 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm

So this must be the same Courtney Martin who wrote the book I’m reading right now?

How do we honestly appreciate our male allies while simultaneously acknowledging that our male opponents are sticking their noses where they don’t belong? Is it even possible?

Well, I think you answered this question in the question. Our male allies have no interest in commandeering anything. Opponents of both genders do. Instead of lumping people into male or female categories, I prefer to lump them into opponents, allies and undecideds. However, the type of opponent I’m most wary of is the type who pretends to be an ally, so I lump with caution.

5 Cara September 8, 2007 at 8:02 pm

Yes, it is the same Courtney Martin! She also writes semi-regularly at Feministing– about books, interestingly enough.

6 Cortney September 9, 2007 at 9:33 pm

Thanks for this! You echoed many of my own concerns when I saw Courtney’s piece.

7 Michelle September 10, 2007 at 7:06 am

What is the best way to respond to a male that is complaining about being “shut out” of the decisionmaking on abortion?

8 BetaCandy September 11, 2007 at 4:46 pm

I tend to think that any real ally, male or female, is going to recognize that the absolute final decision must rest with the person who has the uterus.

Because I think the real reason some people are pushing paternal consent erosions to abortion law is the desire for a quid pro quo against women who in the 80′s and 90′s pursued laws which made it possible for women to collect child support from the men who helped them conceive an unexpected baby they kept.

9 Mary Tracy9 September 13, 2007 at 6:13 am

I think the answer lies in the very nature of being “pro-choice”. Men may never know what being pregnant feels like, but they can ally themselves with the “it’s a woman’s choice” school of thought. Because pro-choice means YES to abortion and NO to abortion, depending on what a woman chooses.
What “PRO-LIFE” people often forget, is that no one will be forced to have an abortion if they choose not to.
To summarize, pro-choice means “yes and no, you decide”, while pro-life means “no, no, no, no, we’ve already decided for you”.

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