When Men Want to Talk About Abortion

How to process the complicated emotions that arise from ending a pregnancy
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When tennis legend Jimmy Connors released his memoir last month, one revelation fixated the media: Connors' disclosure that nearly 40 years ago, his then-fiancée, fellow tennis great Chris Evert, had had an abortion. Reaction was swift and negative. Evert issued a short statement expressing extreme disappointment that her former partner had revealed such a "private matter. " Writing here, Jessica Luther criticized Connors, arguing that this "was not his story to tell."

Regardless of whether Connors violated the principles of ethical memoir, the story reveals how challenging it can be for men to speak openly about their own reactions to a partner's abortion. Connors seems to remain bitter over being excluded from the then 19-year-old Evert's decision-making process (In the book, he writes to Evert: "Well, thanks for letting me know. Since I don't have a say in the matter, I guess I am just here to help.") That bitterness reinforces the stereotype that score-settling is what lies behind most men's public disclosure of a partner's abortion.

Yet men have other reasons to talk about abortion besides a desire to shame an ex. In many cases, it's about acknowledging long-suppressed feelings of loss and guilt. That is certainly true in my case, and in the cases of many with whom I've worked in men's groups.

Nearly 30 years ago, when I was 17, I got my high school girlfriend pregnant. Our commitment to each other was as absolute as our commitment to contraceptives was haphazard. When "April" phoned me tearfully with the news, I promised to support whatever decision she made.

The son of a feminist mom, I'd been raised with a deep respect for women's sovereignty, particularly as it applied to their reproductive lives. I was close to my mom. When I confessed to her that "April" was pregnant, she was exasperated at our recklessness - and deeply concerned that I do the right thing for my girlfriend. As she memorably explained it, the right thing meant avoiding a trio of pitfalls. I couldn't pressure April to do something she didn't want to do (whether that was have an abortion or carry a child to term). I couldn't walk away, denying any responsibility. The third thing I shouldn't do - and this my mum stressed more strongly than the first two - was to burden April with my feelings. "She's in a very difficult position," my mother said. "Don't make her feel like she has to take care of you too."

I went with April when she had the abortion, paying half of the cost with my savings. Before and after the procedure, I told her I loved her and believed in her. I kept my own confusion tucked deep inside. As is so often the case, our relationship was never quite the same, and we broke up within a few months.

When we'd gone together to see the doctor for a pre-abortion appointment, he told us the approximate due date: February 7, 1986. At the time I filed it away as the most useless of facts. But when that date rolled around, I was stunned by how heartsick I was. April and I were no longer speaking by that point, and I was off at university. I cried on that due date and for days after, stunned and bewildered by my own delayed reaction to loss. Though my wife and I now have wonderful two kids of our own, not a February goes by that I don't think about a child who would now be 27.

For those of us who support women's rights, there's a paradox when it comes to men's feelings about abortion, one that my very well-intentioned mother taught me years ago. We want and need men to care about every aspect of reproduction, from being enthusiastic users of contraception to (when invited) devoted coaches in labor and delivery. Yet the danger in publicly focusing on men's feelings about abortion is obvious.

One danger is political: Anti-abortion advocates are all too willing to politicize any sign of grief or confusion after an abortion as evidence that the procedure is harmful and ought to be banned. Anti-abortion groups often frame the issue as one of father's rights: the more evidence of men's post-abortion grief or anger, the more potential fuel for the pro-life cause. Another risk is more personal. As my mum made clear, it can be very difficult for a woman to cope with her partner's turbulent emotions as she makes a decision about abortion.

As Luther notes, the activists at Exhale help to resolve this dilemma. Their "pro-voice" movement is conditioned on respect for everyone who has a story around abortion, men and women alike. They do not allow the intensity of emotion that their work uncovers to be politicized by any "side" in the abortion debate. For men in particular, Exhale's help lines and forums provide an opportunity to find support and share feelings without worrying that they're unfairly burdening a partner. I've participated in Exhale's community and recommend it strongly to everyone looking for support after an abortion.

Men do not get pregnant, and for that simplest of reasons, abortion should never be a man's decision to make--whether that man is a politician, a father, or a romantic partner. At the same time, there's no inconsistency in both denying men a say in what happens to women's bodies while encouraging them to have their say about whatever feelings they have as a result. Left unaddressed and unexpressed, those suppressed emotions can manifest decades later in the tactlessness of a Jimmy Connors--or they can fuel the quiet sadness that haunted me for years. Whether in a group like Exhale or with trusted friends, men should have a chance to talk about how abortion has impacted their lives. They--and their partners--can benefit greatly from the peace that can bring.

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Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College.  He is co-author of Beauty, Disrupted: A Memoir.

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