A Clash of Faulty Rights
An Interview with Arthur Shostak
Copyright © 1993 by Don Kruse
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Every year over a million and a
half women in this country have abortions. Nearly that many men,
the male partners who have been informed, deal with the event
one way or another. What their experience is remains something
of a mystery. By general consensus we have defined abortion as
a woman's issue and avoid wondering about the men involved.
One person who has not avoided publicly
discussing this subject is Arthur Shostak, a Professor of Sociology
at Drexel University. His interest started with his own personal
involvement with an abortion and he defines himself as being "unswervingly
pro-choice." He has authored or edited fourteen books and
over one hundred articles on social issues and reforms. Men
and Abortion, Losses, Lessons, and Loves, a book he co-authored,
is the most comprehensive study on the subject to date. It is
based on a survey involving a thousand men who responded to questionnaires
in the waiting rooms of thirty clinics located in eighteen states.
He was interviewed for Seattle M.E.N.
by Don Kruse, who has written several articles and leads discussion
groups on this subject in the Puget Sound area.
the best way to start is by having you summarize what you learned
from your study. |
AS: I think a major finding
that developed as we analyzed the results of the one thousand
questionnaires was the deep involvement of the men. Eighty-four
percent of the men felt that they had been a full partner in resolving
an unwanted and ill-timed pregnancy. That 's contrary to the
impression one gets from the media or from feminist literature
which continues to exaggerate this as a solo challenge, as something
that the woman alone wrestles with and decides.
A second major finding was the
anxiety and the high level of personal distress that men reported.
An overwhelming proportion of them had thoughts about the fetus,
had dreamed about the child that would not be and anticipated
misgivings after the abortion. Ninety-eight percent said that
if they could help it, they would never, ever find themselves
in this situation again.
Another finding was that the single
greatest concern of the men was with the well being of their sex
partner. Men in the waiting room are well know to clinic personnel
for the frequency with which they jump up out of their seats to
inquire about the well-being of their partner. We asked men if
they would like to accompany their partner through the procedure
or be with them in the recovery room. We found that a large percentage
of the men would have opted to do so. Clinics tell us there is
no interest in this; that the guys are basically coat holders
and drivers. So we get this enormous incongruity between clinic
practice, and the wishes of one half of the couple that have come
to the clinic that day for help.
DK: If, as you pointed out, this can be a matter of great distress to men and a traumatic episode in their lives, why has this issue remained invisible?.
I think there is one, single, overriding explanation. That is
the haste with which the matter is perceived to be a potential
power struggle, as a potential front in the eternal battle of
the sexes. Its perceived as a zero sum situation.
Feminist, happily not all, but
many of them, are ideologically intent on keeping this a non-subject.
My argument is that this is shortsighted and an example of counter
productive thinking. The progress we can make in gender relations
is not going to come through repression of difficult subjects,
its going to come through their airing. Women should know this
through the history of modern feminism. Friedan, Steinman and
others helped legitimize and make common currency many problems
that confront women; problem that previously had been perpetuated
by their avoidance.
The other half of this question concerns men; they could collectively
address this problem and seek some changes. Why have we heard
so little from them?
AS: Well, I've attended
two or three of the national men's meetings and some regional
meetings. The turn-out for a work-shop I would run as a discussion
group at these meetings was very, very small. There are several
explanations. First this is a taboo topic. This isn't one that
men talk about very readily. It's very rare that men tell one
another of their involvement in an abortion. Its a repressed
topic that lacks trendy acceptance.
Also a vast number of guys have
never really thought about this. When your father gives that
incredibly awkward, best effort at sex education this subject
is often not part of it. This is not something a large number
of guys have any familiarity with, its terra incognita
and they don't have many thoughts on the subject.
That's why one of the largest shocks
that sexually active young men encounter is the shock that comes
from hearing their sex partner say "The test is back and
we're pregnant and I'm going to have an abortion."
I call this the longest run-on sentence in the English language
and one of the most painful. It brings information at the start
of the sentence, brings a decision near the end, but it usually
ends with the equivalent of a question mark because it's a test
and a probe. She want's to know "what do you think?"
Now the guy has just been hit with a lightening bolt and what
he thinks is "I've just been hit with a lightening bolt!!"
But usually the response is "Whatever you want."
DK The family planning
services and abortion providers are in a position to bring awareness
and support to men who are in this situation. They don't seem
to be doing much either.
AS: The best of them send
the message with the female to the male that they, the counselor,
are available should the male want help. The best of the Planned
Parenthood clinics invite the male to sit about a foot behind
the female in the office while the female is up close to the counselor
and gets attention.
This abortion counselor is a staff person
being paid for time and expertise. Third party insurance companies
cover the woman, but the male would have to come up with money
of his own. There are no insurance companies, that I'm aware
of, that cover a male for abortion counseling and males might
be reluctant to draw on them anyway given this taboo. In any
case it's not seen as a revenue stream for the counselors.
Also the counselors feel they have
a full case load just handling the women. What if we were to
multiply the case load with having men out there? I once encouraged
a clinic in the Philadelphia suburb to invite men in from the
waiting room for counseling on Saturday mornings. They had anticipated
that maybe one out of four men would take advantage of the offer.
They had anticipated that the average male would take no more
than the forty-five minutes max that they allocated to women.
They were wrong on both counts. Close to one hundred percent
of the guys signed up for the session. What with 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. After about three months the experiment was ended; it created
a budget problem.
Do you think it's a factor that these services would rather not
even have the problem of the impact of abortion on men brought
AS: It's a combination.
It's not a matter of either/or. Along with the notion that they
would have to expand their staff they would have to bring some
males on staff. Ninety-eight percent of all the clinic counselors
in America are female. I argue that males in the waiting room
might want to chose the gender of their counselors.
DK: Since just about everybody
seems to have agreed not to talk about the impact of abortion
on men why should we bring it up at all? What do you see as the
possible harmful effects of ignoring this subject and continuing
to allow men to go through this experience unprocessed?
AS: I think that what's
harmful can be found first in the numbers. We've got about thirty-five
percent of the women as abortion repeaters and perhaps twenty-five
percent of the men. So we're not doing well at preventing repeat
occurrences of an act that everyone finds repugnant and painful.
That's number one.
Number two is that we're groping,
both genders, toward more sanity, more care, more love in gender
relations. We're groping toward more honesty. We're exploring
what do we mean by manhood? What is the manly way? My contention
is that taking something as solemn as the termination of a pregnancy
and making it an invisible non-event for the male partner is not
a contribution towards clarifying manhood. Manhood is a matter
of rights and responsibilities.
You mention in your book that men who don't deal with their feelings
about an abortion may have a hard time maintaining relationships
in the future.
Yes, we're worried but we don't have enough good research on this.
It's speculative. We did interview at a six month interval a
small number of the men. We find that guys that have not ventilated,
have not processed the experience have at a level of their psyche,
a feeling of second class citizenship. They were not a full partner
in the matter. So there is a lack of resolution, a seething discontent.
Also a sense that the next time this happens or something like
it happens, such as some family planning decision, they are not
going to be given a role. So they become reluctant to trust and
reluctant to commit. I would speculate that some of the male's
notorious reluctance to commit may have as a component guys who
have failed to work through a prior abortion experience.
A problem of self esteem?
AS: I think so. And I think
this is all a grievous policy mistake on the part of people who
should know better. The pro-choice men and women are not pro-abortion.
Nobody's pro-abortion who has any smarts or a heart. So the
pro-choice group should be vigorous in its effort to involve adult
So what needs to happen to see this whole situation improved.
What type of reforms are in order?
AS: We need reforms from
many angles. One reform would be exactly this kind of media attention
to the subject, taking the subject out of the closet. It needs
to be aired out in a constructive way.
We also need educational reform.
I think in the junior high schools and high schools professional
sex educators need to legitimize the discussion of constructive
male involvement in abortion decision making.
The third thing is a reform in
the clinics. I urge the clinics to thoroughly revamp their approach
to the male partner. If they cannot always offer counseling,
and I wish they would, at the very least take advantage of the
three hour wait to invite the guys in for contraception education
to see if they can reduce this twenty-five percent repeater rate.
I also urge the insurance companies
and other third party payers to revamp their policies to give
a bonus if the male partner will show up for counseling. If the
abortion is going to cost the insurance company three hundred
dollars let there be some incentive towards prevention. It could
eventually save the companies some money.
Another reform I would suggest
is a reform aimed at the clergy and the mental health profession.
I would like them to advertise on clinic walls to offer their
services as specialist in abortion counseling.
Last point of all pertains to the
men's movement. The men's movement could reserve maybe a page
in each issue of their publications and newsletters, and reserve
a spot in every local, regional and national meeting for the processing
by male participants in abortion of what it is that they've gone
through. What did we learn and how do we grow from the experience?
I maintain that through the grieving process and through the
separation from the child that might have been a man can come
out stronger and healthier. It's not an unmitigated tragedy;
it's a tragic event but our obligation to the fetus that won't
be brought to term is to make something loving and caring of the
recently stated that you supported spousal notification as had
been passed in Pennsylvania and consequently overturned by the
Supreme Court last summer. Why did you favor notification?
AS: My stand is a principled
stand. In principle I want the twosome responsible for the biological
fact of conception to resolve the fate of the fetus. It's my
notion that men should help sweat the decision. Starting from
that principle I would go even farther. I would like the law
to notify the unwed male. I make no distinction in this matter
between married and unwed. If you are a co-partner in the beginning
of life I think you should be a co-partner in its ending, in its
DK: One reason men avoid
dealing with abortions is their reluctance to get involved a situation
where they are powerless. It seems to me that spousal notification
was an according of a right without going all the way to spousal
consent. Without this fundamental right-to-know men have no reproductive
AS: Women say "It
compromises my decision making. If I don't want them to know,
it's my body and I won't tell them." My argument is that
your body has in fact been altered by the product of two party
behavior, a product that has genetic inheritance from a guy that
just might care to petition for its bringing to term. You make
the final decision, but to pretend that what has changed your
body is the product of your own wish fullness is manifestly false.
So I would like you to hear out the husband. Its not just notification
of course, its also the idea that the husband can then plead.
We don't have a perfect world.
Abortion is what is called a clash of faulty rights. When a
man and woman disagree about the fate of the fetus there are faulty
rights involved. That's a solemn doctrine in the law. Things
are not neat and tidy, so if you require the woman to hear the
man's plea it could be very painful to her. I think that pain
is outweighed by what I regard as the legitimacy of the plea.
We must come to the realization that this is not a women's issue
and it is not a men's issue; this is a couple's issue.
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