Studies have shown abortion also has a psychological impact on the millions of men whose partners have gone through it. Here Peter Chaplin, who organises male rites of passage retreats, explains how he made sense of his own experience.
The abortion debate is generally perceived as one of those women-only territories where male perspectives are unwelcome, unless they are in full-throttle support of the pro-choice viewpoint. Irrespective of the roles that men wittingly or unwittingly play in the drama that surrounds abortion, the general public note is that it’s really, and rightly, a subject men should not speak out about.
Studies on the effects of abortion on women are not that numerous, but they massively outweigh those about the effects on men, and the few that are about men don’t always agree. But here’s what some of those few generally concur on.
Men experience many of the same emotions as women after their partner has had an abortion, whether they assented to and supported the decision or not: relief, depression, grief, anger, shame and guilt. Anger is often related to disenfranchisement from the legal decision when the man was not consulted. Men, probably more so than women, can react by falling into patterns of abusing drugs, alcohol and sex and taking part in high-risk sports and adventures.
'Men experience remorse for the child that might have been'
One team of researchers in Canada found that 56.9 per cent of women and 39.6 per cent of men involved in first-trimester abortions were much more distressed than the control groups who were not involved in abortions. And these negative psychological effects can be intense and can be long-term, for men as well as women. Untreated depression is untreated depression, whatever the cause.
Men can also experience great ambivalence about the abortion even if their partner is not so troubled, and this might arise from feelings of personal failure, of having caused someone else to cause harm, and of failing to protect one’s own child.
A small study (50 men) showed 40% of the men having day-dreams about the child that might have been, and experiencing remorse and sadness. Some researchers see the denial of fatherhood as a powerful factor in pathological guilt that can lead to a type of self-alienation, and can adversely affect fatherhood when it arrives later.
And of course in unmarried relationships where abortion takes place, the chances of the relationship surviving are greatly diminished. In one study of 400 men, 70% of the relationships had broken up within one month of the abortion, despite the men being confident at the time of the abortion that they would not regret it later.
'Even asking for help crosses a heavily-guarded boundary'
So just like women, men might lose not only a child but a partner too, while both parties think they are taking the correct course of action. The father and the mother will be left to grieve alone, though in general, the man will be somewhat less likely to deal with this in a healthy way. And there is no place to visit, no stone or memorial and for some, no closure.
Not all men will experience all the reactions noted here. And there is some evidence that men’s reactions are more muted if the abortion is for a serious medical reason.
Still more men are married to or partnered with a woman who has had an abortion from a previous relationship and here the scenario is very muddled. Such relationships may carry a lot of baggage that is hard to recognise. Not your fault, but quite possibly your problem, and it’s easy to fall into “fix” mode, which just makes things worse.
Whether you agree with abortion or not, it’s actually a major life event disguised as a routine healthcare issue. Millions of men in the UK have experienced it. Not only is there hardly any support for men, but even to ask the question about how to support men crosses one of those heavily guarded feminist boundaries, and the flak starts to fly. So we tend to muddle on, without any support to help us make sense of what’s happened.
'Men are wounded by abortion too'
My own experience is that for most men, any kind of opening up to the rawness of the emotional aspects of abortion is best done in a male-only space at first. The simple act of witnessing someone’s story can begin a healing process. It’s not always going to be gentle either. That said, I’m pretty sure that this process can’t be completed without continuing that conversation with women who have started that conversation themselves, but that’s not a starting place, more a long range goal.
Finding closure can take many forms, from therapy to real-talk groups and sacred circles to hill-walking or art or ritual. And it might be quick or slow. All of us will find we have a story about what might or could or should have been, whether we are imaginative, religious , spiritual or whatever.
My own experience involved devising a short ritual that combined adoption with a funeral, but there aren’t any rules except authenticity. What flavour this might take depends on your story about children, childhood and parenting (particularly fathering). And such an approach might be either the beginning or the ending of a journey towards healing. The important thing is to have somewhere to begin and some compassionate and informed company, because men are wounded by abortion too.
By Peter Chaplin
Also on insideMAN:
- What's it like for dads who lose a child through miscarriage?
- If you don't initiate your young men, they will burn down the village