A Critical Response
Exploring Men’s Roles in Women’s Decisions to End Pregnancies:
A Literature Review with Suggestions for Action
The authors of this recent report are affiliated with Ipas, an international organization that is dedicated to the promotion of global abortion rights (www.ipas.org). Prior to this report, few if any abortion advocacy organizations had considered the role of men in abortion. Indeed in the world’s literature, men are generally ignored in any examination of abortion with 30-40 times more studies focusing on women than men.
There are several positive issues worthy of comment in the Ipas report. They include the following: (1) a general affirmation that men’s relational roles are not inconsequential in the lives of women; (2) recognition that men can play a positive role in the abortion decision-making process resulting in benefits to both individuals; (3) appreciation for the fact that some men exert negative influences over women facing an unanticipated pregnancy that can be coercive, abusive and injurious to women; and (4) awareness that male involvement in the abortion process can help prevent future abortions.
However, in spite of the fact that Ipas has at least acknowledged men’s roles in pregnancy and abortion, the report is deeply flawed for various reasons: 1) all relevant research pertaining to men is not reviewed, 2) lack of appreciation for the complexity of men’s roles, 3) men’s rights are ignored; and 4) there are efforts to discredit and malign opposing views. In fact, the sole purpose of this Ipas paper seems to be to encourage men to support women’s unilateral decisions to abort their joint offspring rather than to acknowledge men as having any legitimate claims in procreation and pregnancy termination.
Inadequate Review of Relevant Research
There is scant research concerning men’s psychological reactions to elective abortion. Given the limited number of studies, it is not a herculean task to review the pertinent body of research. Yet, Ipas chose not to do so in spite of the fact that a single publication (Coyle, 2007) which had already reviewed the scientific literature was easily accessible online.
The review by Coyle provided an examination of the literature from 1973 to 2006 and the author identified several common findings among the studies: men do not find abortion to be a benign experience (Buchanan & Robbins, 1990; Coleman & Nelson, 1998; Myburgh, Gmeiner & van Wyk, 2001a; Shostak, 1979, 1983; Shostak & McLouth, 1984); men are interested in and may need counseling concerning abortion (Coyle & Enright, 1997; Gordon 1978; Myburgh, Gmeiner & van Wyk, 2001b; Rothstein 1977a); men struggle with ambivalence, guilt, grief, anxiety and powerlessness after abortion (Gordon & Kilpatrick, 1977; Kero & Lalos, 2000. Kero, Lalos & Hogberg, 1999; Mattinson, 1985; Speckhard & Rue, 1993); men may experience relationship problems post-abortion including sexual problems (Berger, 1994; Rothstein, 1977b; Rue, 1985; White-van Mourik, Connor & Ferguson-Smith, 1992); and men tend to repress their emotions and defer the abortion decision to their partners as they perceive these behaviors as being supportive of their partners (Robson, 2002; Shostak & McLouth, 1984). In addition, there is evidence that men who accompany their partners during the actual abortion procedure may be psychologically traumatized (Lauzon, Roger-Achim, Achim & Boyer, 2000; Robson, 2002). None of these findings were acknowledged or discussed in the Ipas paper. Nor were the review findings and consolidation of the research literature pertaining to abortion and relationships identified by Coleman, Rue & Spence (2007) considered by Ipas.
Failure to Appreciate the Complexity of Men’s Roles
While the authors of the Ipas report acknowledged that “considerable numbers of men may care about this [abortion] but do not express their concern openly” (p. 7), they did not expand on how men’s concerns may be addressed. As previously noted, research indicates that men may need and desire counseling. The provision of adequate pre-abortion counseling for both men and women may serve to encourage men to fully express their desires concerning pregnancy termination and lead to more congruent decisions between partners. However, the only counseling Ipas promoted for the male partners of women seeking abortion was education about women’s “physical and psychological needs and ways to prevent future unwanted pregnancies,” (p. 7). Abundant clinical experience in counseling couples points to the adverse emotional outcomes associated with attending to one partner’s needs while ignoring those of the other (Olson, 1976).
On pages 17-19, the Ipas authors enumerated specific guidelines concerning men and abortion which began with a declaration that abortion is a decision belonging solely to women. Following this assertion, the rest of the guidelines read more like a list of strategies for persuading men to agree with their partners’ decision to abort, assist their partners in obtaining abortion services, support their partners during and after abortion, and engage in public advocacy for elective abortion. In fact, the authors conceded that, “When prochoice advocates and resource sites speak about men’s feelings related to abortion, it is almost always accompanied by a recommendation to focus on how they can support the woman involved,” (p.12).
Denial of Men’s Rights
Although there was recognition of men’s involvement (or lack thereof) in abortion decision-making within the report, it was done primarily in terms of how male involvement may prevent a woman from obtaining an abortion. In a section concerning negative aspects of male involvement, authors stated that “Men’s negative involvement may thus include pressure or coercion either to avoid or to have an abortion,” (p. 6). While it is important to acknowledge that men may coerce a partner to abort, it is equally important to acknowledge the consequences for those men whose partners abort against their wishes. The implication in the Ipas report is that men who argue against abortion are not exerting a justified right but rather are interfering with the right of women to abort. By encouraging men to be silent, Ipas may inadvertently be promoting increased domestic violence. When relationship decision-making is placed in the hands of one partner alone, the risk of interpersonal violence dramatically increases (Gelles, 1997).
Those men who believe they should have a right to influence an abortion decision are stereotyped as “patriarchal,” (p. 21), a word which, in the context of radical feminism, carries an extremely negative connotation. No attention was given to how abortion decision incongruence may negatively affect men and cause them psychological suffering. No mention was made of the fact that some men, even married men, are either excluded from the abortion decision or not informed until after the procedure. Women hold unilateral power in determining the future of jointly created children and common sense dictates that decision incongruence in a matter of life and death may be traumatic. It is hardly surprising that researchers have observed psychological and spiritual suffering among men after being excluded from the abortion decision (Holmes, 2004; Naziri, 2007; Poggenpoel & Myburgh, 2002; Reich & Brindis, 2006; Rue, 1996). The Ipas authors seem to expect men to support their female partners regardless of men’s own desires concerning termination of pregnancy.
Attempt to Malign and Discredit Opposing Views
Ipas authors admitted that “Only a few pro-choice organizations have paid attention to men’s own abortion-related needs and experiences,” (p.12). They further granted that “the list of anti-abortion books and brochures available specifically for men is extensive, especially in comparison to the paucity of materials produced by pro-choice organizations” (p. 9). Sadly, the authors then critically dismissed pro-life individuals and organizations who have attempted to recognize men’s needs by falsely claiming that their sources are not scientific. Specifically, the Ipas authors stated that men’s negative responses to abortion have been published only in “journals that have an ideological bias against abortion,” (p.8). However, the studies cited in Coyle’s review of the literature were published in reputable mental health journals utilizing a respected peer review process. It is the Ipas authors who have failed to scientifically support their claims by choosing to publish a paper without reviewing the appropriate professional literature, thereby seriously negating their credibility.
Furthermore, the authors implied that pro-life individuals and organizations that offer men help or invite men to share their personal abortion stories have suspect motives. Surely offering men the opportunity to share their stories and receive compassionate help is not illogical or immoral. Interestingly, the website of pro-abortion sociologist Art Shostak also includes an invitation for men to share their stories. Because Ipas chose not to explain the discrepancy in attention given to men’s needs between pro-life and pro-abortion groups, we can only surmise their reasons for not doing so. Logical reasons may include the following: 1) the pro-life view respects both men and women while the pro-abortion view grants women superior rights in terms of abortion; 2) the pro-abortion side can’t afford to acknowledge men’s suffering as that acknowledgement may lead to attention being diverted away from women; 3) the pro-abortion movement has vigorously and erroneously argued that abortion is psychologically safe for women; admitting psychological injury to men but not to women would be illogical and could erode women’s right to abort; 4) the pro-abortion view is based on the invalid assumption that pregnancy and abortion concern only women’s bodies.
In sum, Ipas and other pro-abortion groups can neither consider nor concede that men might legally hold any legitimate reproductive rights or that they might experience profound suffering following abortion. They can only argue that men may be useful in supporting women who choose abortion. To do otherwise would come dangerously close to admitting that men have a moral right to protect their children, both those who are born and those still in the womb. While it is understandable that a pro-abortion organization would not recognize men as having legitimate legal rights related to abortion, it is inexcusable that such an organization would ignore men’s suffering when they desire their children to be born rather than aborted. Men are not mere bystanders in matters of conception and termination of pregnancy. They are human participants painfully struggling with matters of life and death. This should be obvious to the authors of the Ipas report given that their report included Shostak’s observation concerning men who were offered counseling at an abortion clinic: “Close to one hundred percent of the guys signed up for the session. What with the weeping and telling their stories, catharsis, and the rest, many of the males required an hour or more before they could return to the waiting room,” (p.12). It is time that men’s voices are heard and their struggles addressed no matter how inconvenient that may be for Ipas.
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