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Actor Ryan Gosling, bare-chested. Over the photo is written in white, "Hey girl, just want to let you know that I respect your autonomy to make your own healthcare decisions."
CategoriesRelationships and SexualityVoices

Toeing a Difficult Line – When and How to Talk about Men’s Relationship with Abortion

It’s outrageous that in 2016 women continue to face considerable barriers with regard to their right to decide freely about their sexuality, reproduction, and motherhood. As feminist reproductive justice activists who focus on abortion stigma, in our work it’s keenly obvious how often policies and norms try to disrupt women’s relationship with their own bodies, not just in terms of abortion but whenever women assert their right to bodily autonomy and integrity. A critical aspect of our activism, therefore, is to enable an empowering space that allows women to share their abortion stories and experiences without judgement, and that recognises the broad spectrum of diverse narratives that exist around abortion.

While using a reproductive justice approach has made us appreciate and work towards being more inclusive in our abortion rights work, it has also made us cognizant of aspects of this issue that are still largely unexplored and/or aren’t talked about as openly. One of the thorniest aspects is exploring men’s relationship to abortion, especially in terms of the narratives of men who have personally experienced a partner’s abortion. Mainstream media is beginning to pay attention to men’s relationship with abortion – a welcome counterpoint to the anti-woman, anti-abortion rhetoric Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) spew on the topic – but a quick Google search will show you the degree to which the anti-abortion lobby still dominates the issue online, with a comparative dearth of evidence-based narratives that employ an intersectional feminist lens to comprehend and analyse men’s experiences with abortion.

But before we delve deeper into the fray, we want to be completely clear about the fact that we fully believe that only a woman should have the absolute control over her choice and decision regarding the termination or continuation of pregnancy. That right, according to us, is non-negotiable. That being said, there are questions surrounding men’s feelings about abortion that we think are worth asking, not just to challenge the MRAs who shouldn’t be dominating the discourse, but because these questions can help us think through the ways in which patriarchal masculinity limits the expression and sharing of the wide range of experiences that men often have with regard to abortion. For instance, how does their partner’s decision to have an abortion challenge and impact their understanding around the issue? What do we, as feminists, make of their experiences with abortion in our activism? And, more importantly, is there even a place for men and their experiences in abortion rights activism, or does inviting male voices without allowing them to overtake the issue mean an impossible ‘having your cake and eating it too’ conundrum? These are difficult and even uncomfortable questions to ponder, but if we claim to practice a reproductive justice framework that is geared towards ending reproductive oppression for everyone, we have to engage with them.

So, to map men’s narratives on abortion, we reviewed mainstream media stories and literature on this emerging topic from Belgium, Greece, India, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Sweden, Uganda, and the United States, and outlined a range of men’s responses (in paraphrase) to experiencing abortion, pictured below. Because existing research is limited and each study records a diverse array of responses even within those participant groups, we avoided making generalisations about how men in a particular country feel. Men’s experiences with abortion are just as heterogeneous as women’s, and also do not fall neatly into “pro-life” or “pro-choice” categories:

What’s really interesting is that in these studies the kinds of sentiments anti-abortion groups claim men most commonly experience after an abortion are mostly absent. The anti-choice lobby manipulates the fact that men might have an emotional reaction to abortion (shocking!) to assert that women commit “contraception fraud”, tricking men into getting them pregnant, or that men are the real victims of abortion at the mercy of heartless women duped by liberal feminism to think it’s okay to “murder babies”. Supported by MRAs, this lobby is the main driving force behind the demand that men have a say in their partner’s decision to abort, or have a right to legally terminate their parental responsibilities if the partner has a child against their ‘wishes’.

The other popular myth that abortion typically results in depression and broken relationships doesn’t hold up in the research either. Not all of the couples who were in a relationship at the time of the abortion stayed together afterward, but did not necessarily break up because of any abortion-related trauma. What is more evident in men’s narratives is that going through the abortion crystallised their desires for future parenthood (or their choice to be childless) and other priorities that weren’t always compatible with their partner’s. In some instances, the abortion experience actually enabled better dialogue between partners that strengthened the relationship instead of ruining it. Here are two cases that reflect how decision-making around abortion can help partners to openly communicate with each other:

“I’m not an open-communication guy. I’d rather throw my arm around you. Still, we had a lot of talks before and after about our decision – I grew up real quick that summer.”

Brandon, 23, Virginia, United States

With Iannis and Maria from Greece, their relationship was unstable when Maria got pregnant; she wasn’t ready to have a child with Iannis, but he disagreed with the decision to abort. Ultimately, through the intense discussions they had before and after the abortion, they clarified that they wanted to stay together and have children together in the future, just not now. Iannis reported their relationship stabilised after they had to have these conversations about their future – the conflict surrounding the abortion experience actually “saved” their relationship.[1]

Experiencing abortion within a relationship not only impacts that relationship, but can influence how men approach future relationships, communication, and sexual experiences with new partners:

“My attitude about sex has also changed. I’ve dated only one other person since then, and I told her about Kristina’s abortion. It’s a part of my life now.”

Chris, 26, New York

In a study from Sweden, one year following an abortion, the majority of men were still in a partner relationship with the previously pregnant woman, and declared they were quite satisfied with their relationship. More than half explicitly stated that the abortion had influenced their relationship in a positive way, and that the relationship had deepened because of having gone through this experience together.[2]

From these examples, it seems that abortion functions like a litmus test for relationships: you either make it through together – and often as a stronger couple, with clarified goals for the future – or you don’t. It also appears that men who were able to get in touch with their emotions, including negative feelings and ambivalence about the abortion, were better able to support their partners and continue to stay together. When men were consistently opposed to the abortion, refused to deal with their own feelings, or didn’t find out about it until much later, in one study the authors found relationships were much more likely to be damaged.[3]

Some participants’ relationship to reproductive justice also changed as a result of them experiencing a partner’s abortion. Understanding first-hand the practical need for accessible safe abortion helped them realise that abortion, far from being just a ‘women’s issue’ as it is portrayed, actually impacts everyone. A few men even became activists as a result of their new understanding that they can play a role in ending reproductive oppression for all genders. As Emily and Dave from the U.S. put aptly, restricting access to safe abortion services for women is not only disrespectful to women, but also men.

“Emily: Everything going on politically right now is heartbreaking. It shows a misunderstanding of why people choose abortions … and a lack of respect for women.

Dave: And frankly, for men too. This was a decision Emily and I made together.”

Given that the broad-ranging experiences of men with abortion can’t be boxed into one or two categories only, it is our responsibility to also carve out some amount of space that enables men to enter the conversation about abortion (on the grounds that it is always ultimately the pregnant person’s decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy) to process their feelings, and maybe even become better allies/advocates for reproductive justice including abortion access. Moreover, it’s an unfortunate reality that for millions of women, men remain the gatekeepers to women accessing reproductive health services. Having a keener sense of men’s responses to and feelings about abortion would help us better focus our efforts to convince men of the importance of women accessing safe abortion, and mitigate their acting as one of the barriers to women getting this care. In addition, it would also allow us as activists to better understand the complexities and nuances of the contexts within which the decision to have an abortion is made and exercised.

Facilitating such a space can also contribute to the emerging cultural discourses of counter-hegemonic masculinities that are helping men let go of a singular ‘macho man’ ideal that very few men fully embody or want to embrace. These changing norms are encouraging men to step back, and instead of exerting power over women, are empowering them to stand with women and support the decisions women need to make about their own bodies. And we are hopeful that by creating more opportunities for men to share their experiences, we can look forward to more statements like this one from male allies committed to advancing reproductive rights and justice:

“Abortion is not a women’s issue. It’s everyone’s issue. Even though a woman goes through pregnancy, it’s a process we all have to respect. This issue of being pro-choice is something everyone, males especially, need to realise affects them as well. … Even though men don’t carry the burden, we support the women who do.”

References:

Chibber et al. The Role of Intimate Partners in Women’s Reasons for Seeking Abortion. 2013.

Elul et al. Unwanted Pregnancy and Induced Abortion: Data from Men and Women in Rajasthan, India. 2004.

Izugbara et al. Men, Women and Abortion in Central Kenya: A Study of Lay Narratives. 2009.

Kero, A And Lelos, A. Reactions and Reflections in Men, 4 and 12 Months Post-Abortion. 2004.

Marsiglio et al. Framing Men’s Experience in the Procreative Realm. 2013.

Mavroforou et al. Do Men Have Rights in Abortion? The Greek View. 2010.

Moore et al. Men’s Attitudes About Abortion in Uganda. 2010.

Naziri, D. Man’s Involvement in the Experience of Abortion and the Dynamics of the Couple’s Relationship: A Clinical Study. 2007.

Patel, C. and Johns, L. Gender Role Attitudes and Attitudes to Abortion: Are there gender differences? 2009.

Phillips et al. Quality of Spousal Relationship on Procurement of Abortion in Peri-Urban Nigeria. 2015.

Purvis, D. Expectant Fathers, Abortion and Embryos. 2015.

Reich, J. Not Ready to Fill His Father’s Shoes: A Masculinist Discourse of Abortion, 2008.

Silverman et al. Male Perpetration of Intimate Partner Violence and Involvement in Abortions and Abortion Related Conflict. 2010.

Woodhams et al. Describing Abortion Attitudes among Young African American Men. 2016.

Footnotes:

[1] Naziri, D. “Man’s involvement in the experience of abortion and the dynamics of the couple’s relationship: a clinical study”, The European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care, 12.2 (2007): 168-174.

[2] Kero, A. and Lalos, A., “Reactions and reflections in men, 4 and 12 months post-abortion”, J Psychosom Obstet Gynecol 25 (2004): 135-143.

[3] Mavroforou et al, “Do men have rights in abortion? The Greek View”, Medicine and Law 29 (2010): 77-85.

                                                                                                                                                                                        

Article written by:

Kristin Francoeur and Surabhi Srivastava are proud feminists working for abortion rights in India and the U.S. within a reproductive justice framework. In their leisure time they enjoy discussing feminist literature and current events, and believe that strategising how to change patriarchy is work best done with a steady supply of hot pizza.

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