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Men and Abortion

A Clash of Faulty Rights

An Interview with Arthur Shostak

Copyright © 1993 by Don Kruse

This story appeared in the January, 1993 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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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.
  DK: Probably 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?.

AS: 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.

DK: 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.

DK: 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 up?

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.

DK: 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.

AS: 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.

DK: 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 men.

DK: 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 experience.

DK: You 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 resolution.

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 rights whatsoever.

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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