A Man’s Guide to Abortion

A Man’s Guide to Abortion

You don’t have to be a woman to stand up for reproductive rights.


As abortion bans spring up in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and elsewhere, it’s a good time to talk about men. Where are they? Polls show that in the United States there is little difference of opinion between men and women on abortion. According to Pew, 60 percent of women and 57 percent of men say abortion should be legal in “all or most cases.” But checking a box on a questionnaire doesn’t tell us much, because polls don’t measure intensity. There is no box for “sure, babe, whatever” or for “Yes! Abortion rights is the hill I would die on.”

In my experience, there’s a big difference in intensity between genders on the pro-choice side. Men are all over the anti-abortion movement—staffing and running organizations, protesting at clinics, harassing patients, and participating in mass protests like 40 Days for Life. I’ve been involved with reproductive rights for decades, and I have never seen more than a sprinkling of men at any conference, meeting, fund-raiser, or volunteer activity on the pro-choice side. With the exception of gatherings of abortion providers, many of whom are men, just about the only time I see our pro-choice brothers representing us is when there’s a really big march. And even then, they’re way under half the crowd.

Why? It’s obvious. For anti-choicers, abortion is about “the unborn,” who are as likely to be male as female—which means actually caring about how women fare isn’t required to be part of that movement. It’s also about maintaining traditional gender roles that put men in charge of women and cast women as wives and mothers. (And if the track record of Republican politicians is any guide, pro-life men don’t seem to have much trouble ignoring the sexual-responsibility and marital-fidelity requirements of those arrangements. Among many others, just look at thrice-married Newt Gingrich, Mark “Appalachian Trail” Sanford, and of course, the pussy-grabber-in-chief.)

On the pro-choice side, even when abortion isn’t dismissed as a cultural issue, it is nonetheless upheld, often by both sexes, as a women’s issue. The whole basis of the pro-choice perspective is that the woman is the protagonist: She, not the fertilized egg or embryo or fetus—and certainly not the man who impregnated her—is the one with rights. This is as it should be: Women are the ones whose physical well-being is at risk in pregnancy and childbirth and whose personhood is denied when abortion is made illegal or inaccessible. They, not their impregnators, are the ones who are punished for becoming pregnant outside marriage. Motherhood has a huge effect on women’s futures in every way, and it’s usually much greater than the effect that fatherhood has on men. That’s why the decision to end a pregnancy must always be up to the pregnant woman—and her alone. Anything else turns her into a vessel and a vassal.

That doesn’t mean men can sit back, though. After all, they have a big personal stake in keeping abortion safe and legal. I’m not talking about reproductive criminals—the rapists, hit-and-run artists, and men who refuse to wear a condom—or those who practice reproductive sabotage, putting holes in condoms or throwing away their partner’s pills. I’m not talking about men who ghost when a girlfriend gets pregnant. I’m talking about reasonably decent pro-choice men who think they have more important concerns than standing up for our rights. Because for every woman with an ill-timed, unwanted pregnancy, there is probably a man who is unhappy about it, too.

Men, too, can have their lives stunted by unwanted childbearing. They, too, suffer when a pregnancy pushes them into marriage, or into marriage with the wrong person. For men as for women, ill-timed or unwanted children can mean giving up ambitions and dreams. It can mean decades of regret for not doing right by children you didn’t mean to have or have no real connection to or perhaps have never even met. These are things women think about all the time. They know the stakes can be very high. But when you consider how few men use condoms every time, it doesn’t seem that nearly enough of them have absorbed the message. Where is the men’s mass movement demanding a male birth-control pill?

Men: With abortion becoming ever harder to access and no doubt with birth control soon to follow, you have to do better. A lot better. For starters, you need to volunteer as clinic defenders and patient escorts, as political-campaign workers and fund-raisers. Support pro-choice candidates. March and demonstrate—and not just once a year. Talk to other men about abortion and get active together. That dollar you earn compared with the average woman’s 80 cents? Put it to work by donating today to an abortion fund in one of the abortion-ban states. For example, the Gateway Women’s Access Fund helps people in Missouri, a state of over 6 million people with only one clinic and where a super-restrictive “heartbeat bill” was just passed. You can find the fund, along with many others, at abortionfunds.org.

At the personal level, use condoms. If you don’t want to be a father or you’ve had all the children you want, get a vasectomy. Do you have any idea how much pain women go through because of their reproductive systems, how much effort they put in to stay unpregnant? Unless you plan a future with (more) kids, your partners have to do that only because of your love of your own sperm.

Oh, and should you impregnate a woman who wants an abortion, pay the whole bill. Not half—half is fake equality. She is going through a not-fun visit to a clinic, with sanitary napkins and follow-up visits and other tiresome stuff. That’s her share. And while you’re at it, make a donation to the clinic, too. The staffers put their lives on the line for you.

I know men like sports metaphors, so here are a few to remember: Step up to the plate. Make a full-court press. Go to the mat. Keep your eye on the ball. Let’s push abortion rights over the goal line together.

Listen to Katha Pollitt discuss abortion and men on the Start Making Sense podcast.

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