How Abortion Affects American Men

Little has been researched or written about how abortion affects the fathers of aborted babies. This is one researcher's view.

  • Abortion is a traumatic experience and therefore impacts on both male and female.
  • One-half of the women obtaining abortions are accompanied by their male partners.
  • Males in the waiting room are given a cold shoulder.
  • Male responses to abortion are determined by a complex web of factors.
  • Men feel it is not appropriate for a woman to have an abortion if her male partner objects.
  • A male can, over time, come to feel that his historical male role as protector has been violated by his involvement in an abortion.
How Abortion Affects American Men - A Psychodynamic-Relational View

Michael Simon, a clinical psychotherapist, has written a paper on "Male Partners and the Psychological Sequelæ of Abortion: A Psychodynamic-Relational View."

He argues that abortion is a traumatic experience and therefore impacts on both male and female sense of self-integrity. The severity of the impact on one's psyche, he concludes, can lead to problems that have previously not been recognized in abortion research.

Simon acknowledges that any research on abortion is highly controversial because of the political aspects of abortion, and such research attracts great scrutiny from both pro- and anti-abortion supporters.

Simon looked at earlier research, especially studies done in the 1990s, and saw that while studies did acknowledge negative psychological sequelae of abortion for women, the majority of studies concluded that the negative sequelae of abortion was negligible from a public health perspective. He went on to say:

"Yet persistent anecdotal information -from colleagues in clinical practice doing individual, couples or family psychotherapy and from numerous friends who have experienced abortion- would suggest otherwise. The abortion experience is a profound one...with long-lasting effects for many. "

Simon pointed out that the difference between studies that show significant post-abortion effects and those that show only mild negative reactions to abortion, can be attributed to factors such as religious affiliation, ethnicity, culture and female partner attitudes. These are considered to help explain how men cope with and respond to their partner's abortion, as well as how men and women make abortion choices. 

Of those studies which indicate negative sequelae of abortion (in women or their male partners), conscious guilt is most often reported, however mild. 

Previous studies
According to Simon the first serious research was Arthur Shostak and Gary McLouth's "groundbreaking 1984 sociological study 'Men and Abortion: Lessons, Losses and Love'. However, not much has been done since that work, and there are to date (1997) few theoretical or empirical researches either on the psychological sequelae of abortion, or on intrapsychic dynamics of the abortion experience for male partners."

Simon did a computer search which came up with less than 100 studies, reports or theoretical pieces which dealt even marginally with the male partner's responses to abortion. He found that even fewer represented theoretically-based research on the psychological sequelae of abortion in men.

Shostak's research reports that about one-half of the women obtaining abortions are accompanied by their male partners to the procedure. Those males who do accompany their partner to the procedure, typically find that their experience is predominately characterised by waiting and isolation. Shostak says:

"Those who wish to offer comfort during the 15-minute abortion procedure (perhaps 70%) are generally barred from doing so. Those who wish to offer comfort during the hour-long recovery period, (perhaps 90%), are generally told this is not permitted. Since over half of all pregnancies (56%) are unintended, giving a cold shoulder to these waiting-room males could not be more mistaken."
Male response to abortion
Studies have shown that while young adult males might support a woman's 'right to choose' to have an abortion, they also feel that it was "not appropriate for a woman to have an abortion if her male partner objected." 1

Simon points out that this suggests that young males, while deferring to the woman's decision and having no legal rights in the abortion decision, have very strong feelings about the pregnancy and decision to terminate. This is borne out by other studies. 2

According to Simon: "The present study argues that male responses to abortion are determined by a complex web of factors. One important factor is the degree to which the experience is perceived consciously and unconsciously as a relational experience, that is, as pertaining to one's partner, potential or existing children, one's family and to the society and social values within which the abortion occurs."

Empathy with the woman
Most men intuitively understand that their supportive presence in the abortion plays a significant ameliorative function, pre-and post-abortion.
Most men intuitively understand that their supportive presence in the abortion (and not just their physical presence in the waiting room) plays a significant ameliorative function, pre-and post-abortion.

The conscious and unconscious decision-making process around their involvement after learning of the pregnancy, is one in which the male is vulnerable to intense guilt over adequately supporting the woman through what he knows is a traumatic experience.

This is not the only source of guilt, but it is an overlooked one, riding on the assumption that men have little capacity for empathy, or other affiliative experience of pregnancy, or its termination. (See for example, Chapter 4 on the work of Peter Blos, and some of the new psychoanalytic thinking around pregnancy.)

Simon points out that there have been no studies to date that have assessed the effect of partner support on male coping and postabortion adjustment with regard to the suppression and repression of his own psychological pain.

Loss of his role as a father
'Loss' has been long recognised as a trigger for depression. This may be he a physical loss, as in the case of an aborted child, but it can also be the loss of an ideal. For men this can mean the loss of his role as a father (and even a sense of loss of potential future generations).

The male does not have to view the abortion as having ended a child's life in order to experience a loss, since the lost "object" is related to a socially-sanctioned gender role, not the human being.

A male can, over time, come to feel that his historical male role as protector has been violated by his involvement in an abortion, whether he was agreeable to the abortion or not. This role guilt is defined as "the guilt that people experience consciously and unconsciously when they believe they have violated or are going to violate the socially sanctioned rules and regulations accepted for their sex/gender, class or ethnic group." 3

The male may unconsciously experience the abortion as the rejection of the role of father, and develop significant inhibitions in response to this rejection.

Simon points out that "the male partner may feel uncomfortable at not undergoing the same perceived trauma as his partner, and appearing to get the "easy end of the deal" as regards the experience, especially if his partner appears to be having a difficult time surrounding the abortion decision and experience.'

Sexual dysfunction
One of the least talked about effects abortion has on some males is where there is a change in sexual desire or dysfunction in erection. The male may come to regard his sexual feelings and desires as dangerous since they can result in the conception and subsequent abortion of an unwanted child. This change in sexual behaviour may only be known to the man and his partner and may not be consciously connected to the abortion.

It is estimated that close to 60 percent of those men experiencing erectile dysfunction or lack of libido do not seek treatment due to the perceived negative view of being "impotent."   

Regarding this, Simon states:
"In an unpublished study of male responses to abortion, Finley (1978) reported that most (94 percent) of the men in his study consciously linked post-abortion behavioral changes such as "less interest in sex" "enjoying work or school less," "socializing less," "sleeping less," and "drinking more" and their abortion experience. These behaviors often continued long after the abortion."
Male grieving
In Western culture it is generally expected that a male will not publically express grief, yet psychologists are aware of and have written about intense male guilt responses in relation to death and other losses of role, status and relationship.

Males are conditioned from very early years to repress tears when they are hurt. Simon quotes Warren Steinberg (a disciple of psychologist Carl Jung):

"We are all familiar with experiences, either our own or observed, of grown-ups admonishing a young boy who has been hurt and is crying that boys are not supposed to express such emotions. Sometimes there is even the more shaming pejorative "sissy" thrown at the boy, or he is told that only girls cry and he should be a man. By attaching shame and humiliation to the expression of emotions, parents solidify the idea in their son that a real man does not show his emotions and that outward expressions of emotion are feminine and undesirable in a man."

This expectation can lead the male to repress any negative reactions to the abortion experience. In disconnecting himself from feeling, the male can have difficulty in expressing affection with others.

While the male still has a need of 'attachment' with others, men simply do not consciously recognise their needs, or they are too humiliated to state them and ask for their satisfaction.

The majority of studies on abortion report that relief is the most commonly experienced post-abortion emotional response. The studies on the effects of abortion on men also indicate that men feel relieved after the abortion.

Unresolved and dysfunctional grieving
Although men often do not show their grief responses and appear to "work through" their response to trauma and loss much more quickly than women, this may not be the case. 

In suppressing grief men may subconsciously resort to one or more of five primary coping styles:
  • Remaining silent
  • Engaging in solitary mourning or "secret" grief
  • Taking physical or legal action
  • Becoming immersed in activity
  • Exhibiting addictive behavior(s)
Simon reports that "Many men report never being asked about their abortion experience, never talking about it until the research interview, and feeling that no one would have understood or cared about their responses (Shostak, 1984). One male in my clinical practice reported having "kept my feelings about the abortion a secret...only to realize that later setbacks and losses which made me think about killing myself were actually related to guilt over an abortion that happened over 17 years ago."

He goes on to say:

"A man's throwing himself into activity following an abortion, while indicative by some measures as the absence of pathological response, may be viewed by other measures as potentially pathological. Related to the delay or "masking" of grief responses, we might expect the male to be highly encouraged to go through the process alone, in secret, either in deference to someone he perceives as more deserving of attention, or in deference to a culture which equates the silence response for men, as strength in the face of trauma. 

"Self-reported based measures may fail to pick up links to interpersonally-driven shame, depression or guilt, especially if those responses are exhibited more in changes in interpersonal behaviors, coping styles, and life goals. We would do well to look at achievement in interpersonal relationships, successes in other areas as indicators of the emotional sequelae of abortion, rather than the presence of elevated levels of depression."

Editor's note: Michael Simon at the conclusion of his study carefully states that he is not about finding a causal link between abortion and mental health problems in men. His full paper is available for viewing here

References:

  1. Marsiglio & Sheehan, p. 166
  2. Smith & Kronauge, 1990
  3. O'Connor, Berry ,Weiss, Bush & Sampson, 1997