Men Experience Abortions, Too. Why Don’t We Talk About It?

Abortion rights are under assault. In the US, for example, the Trump administration is pushing through new rules that would effectively cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood. In Ireland, a vote on whether to finally repeal the constitutional provision making abortions illegal shows how divisive the rhetoric over this issue can be.

Abortion discussions generally center on women, with good reason. Women are the ones directly affected when access to abortion is restricted. But as the debate around restrictions on abortion ramps up in the US, Ireland, and elsewhere, it’s important to consider how this can also negatively affect men. In particular, the stigma against abortion, which is intended to shame women for terminating a pregnancy, can also make it difficult for men to talk about their experiences with partners who have had abortions, and provide them the support they need.

Chris, 37, who works in state government in Pennsylvania, says that stigma against abortion made a painful situation even harder when he and his wife terminated a pregnancy a year and a half ago. Chris’ wife was in the first trimester of her pregnancy when they discovered the fetus had Edwards Syndrome, a genetic disorder. Fetuses with Edwards Syndrome rarely survive to term; those who do generally die in their first year.

“It was an awful experience, in part because we spent time imagining the future child that we would have,” Chris says. Though the two were supported by their family, Chris’ wife was concerned that some of the people in their wider circle of friends would react negatively, or be judgmental. As a result, they were not able to be fully public about their grief or their experience. “That makes it much more difficult to process, because you have to end up swallowing it, and not being able to talk about it,” Chris says.

Sophia Banks was also affected by the silence around abortion. Banks is a 38-year-old queer trans woman who runs a catering company in Montreal. She came out as trans around six years ago. When she did, a former girlfriend told Banks that she had had an abortion when they were together.

“When women feel they can’t talk to their partners about abortions, it’s also a reflection on a society which has worked to make such communication risky.”

“I was sad that she didn’t feel comfortable telling me [at the time],” Banks says. “But it also made me reflect on who I was when I was living as a man, as compared to living as a woman. And understanding that, okay, I didn’t create a safe environment for her to tell me that. She must have felt that I would be judgmental or that it would be a strain on the relationship. And I felt that I failed as a partner.”

Since abortion is stigmatized, women have good cause to worry about how their partners will react to the news that they want to terminate a pregnancy. Banks believed she had failed personally by not providing enough support to her partner. But when women feel they can’t talk to their partners about abortions, it’s also a reflection on a society which has worked to make such communication risky.

David is a 38-year-old development officer for a national nonprofit who asked that Quartz not use his real name. When he was 20, his 28-year-old girlfriend became pregnant, and decided to have an abortion. David paid for it and accompanied her to the procedure. He found the experience disorienting and upsetting. “I  realized as I got older how disempowered I felt by the whole experience,” he says.

One of the reasons the experience was painful was that David didn’t have many people with whom to discuss it. “I talked about it with my mother a little bit,” David says. “Because I knew that she had an abortion before she was pregnant with me. And I think that’s it. I don’t remember talking about it with anyone else until much later. And I certainly didn’t have the language to discuss what I was feeling. I didn’t even know what I was feeling.”

Discussion of abortion may be more open now than 20 years ago, but it’s still an extremely controversial subject. Women like Chris’ wife and Sophia Banks’ partner still feel that they have to hide their decisions about abortions from friends, acquaintances, and loved ones. In 2015, Time reported that women legislators who speak out about their own abortions often receive death threats. Nevada legislator Lucy Flores told the magazine that while she doesn’t regret publicly discussing her abortion, it was also “one of the worst experiences of my entire life. I wasn’t sure if I walked out of that legislative building if there was going to be some crazy person who was ready to shoot me and kill me.”

The stakes for men and for partners of women who have abortions are much lower. But enforced silence about abortion affects them nonetheless, making it more difficult to express, or understand, both their and their partner’s feelings of grief, guilt, and confusion.  Women’s well-being, not men’s, is the reason to end stigma around abortion. But if that stigma is lifted, men as well as women will be better off.

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

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