When Derek’s girlfriend Brynn got pregnant in 2005, they were both still college students.
They had been in a relationship for two years and were living together near their school in Ohio. They were starting to ask themselves whether marriage and children would be in their futures, and if so, would that future be together. They were “just starting to develop into the adults we would become,” as Derek put it.
And then Brynn got pregnant.
They had always been careful to use condoms during sex, but Derek — who, like all people mentioned in this piece, has had his name changed to protect his privacy — believes one must have broken. Brynn decided to have an abortion, despite knowing she wanted a family one day. She wasn’t sure how Derek would react, so she got an abortion without talking to him about it.
She told him six months later.
Derek said that even after all these years, he still feels ashamed that Brynn didn’t consider him a safe and accessible enough partner when she made her decision. He also knows how lucky they were to have lived in a state and in a year where Brynn could access abortion at all.
Derek is certain that forced parenthood would have been a disaster for them, both individually and as a couple. He said he would have needed to drop out of school and work multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Derek said Brynn’s decision to seek an abortion allowed both of them to create the lives they were meant to lead. (They are no longer together, but the abortion had nothing to do with their breakup.)
“I fully believe that the events we endured together provided us with the learning to grow into stronger, more capable adults,” Derek said. “We were afforded the opportunity to pursue our own happier, productive livelihoods.”
Derek and Brynn don’t live in Ohio anymore, but he has spent a lot of time thinking about what it would have been like for Brynn to seek abortion care if they had been in college in 2019 instead of 2005.
In April, Ohio became one of several states to pass increasingly restrictive anti-abortion legislation. Its law, which has not yet gone into effect, bans the procedure starting at about five or six weeks, when the first activity within the fetal pole becomes detectable. (The fetal pole is also referred to as the “fetal heartbeat,” although technically the heart hasn’t been developed yet.) The law doesn’t include exceptions for rape or incest, and most women don’t even realize they are pregnant until after that six-week mark. Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama have all passed similar bans in the last five months. Alabama’s legislation is the most extreme and bans the procedure outright in the vast majority of cases. (The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Alabama abortion providers.)
“There’s a voice that gnaws in the back of my head that says these bills feel intended to trap less fortunate people and force them into lifelong subjugation where they have no mobility in life,” Derek said. “They certainly are not pro-life, no matter how hard they are marketed as such.”
The majority of legislators authoring and voting for these restrictive anti-abortion laws are cisgender white men, with a strong assist from cisgender white women. (We see you, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R).) These men tend to frame their support for anti-abortion legislation as benevolent concern for life.
“[The bill] is very simple but also very powerful: a declaration that all life has value, that all life matters, and that all life is worthy of protection,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) said last month when he signed a bill into that would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.
These are the cisgender men who get the most media attention, but there is also another group of cis men worth talking about: those who have experienced abortion care by way of their partners. As journalist and author Liz Plank put it in a now-viral tweet: “Behind millions of successful men is an abortion they don’t regret getting with their partner.”
In the last few weeks, calls have increased for cis men to speak out about abortion in solidarity with women and people of other gender identities who can get pregnant. Some prominent men, including Refinery29 CEO Philippe von Borries, began sharing their stories on social media, and the hashtag #MenForChoice trended nationally last week.
Activists agree that cis men shouldn’t be the focus of conversations about reproductive rights. But putting the overwhelming burden of protesting, organizing and soul-baring storytelling on people who have uteruses can be harmful. Women are not the only people affected by lack of abortion access, and they are not the only ones who benefit from the ability to make basic health care and family planning decisions for themselves.
As Katha Pollitt noted in her 2014 book “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights,” truly understanding abortion requires that society “put abortion back into its context, which is the lives and bodies of women, but also the lives of men, and families, and the children those women already have or will have.”
To flesh out this missing context, HuffPost spoke with Derek and four other cis men who had experienced unintended pregnancy and watched their partners navigate obtaining abortion care.
The men HuffPost spoke to felt a need to publicly tell their stories to help reduce stigma, but they weren’t sure how to go about it. They all recognized that, as cisgender men, they are not — and should not be — the primary focus of public discussions about abortion. But they also recognized that the relative silence around cis men’s stories has contributed to a culture in which the bodies of people with uteruses have become legislative battlefields, leaving the role that cis men play in both creating unintended pregnancies and in benefiting from their partners’ access to medical care largely unnoticed.
Their stories are all different. They span decades and states. Some of these men are still with the person with whom they went through the experience of accessing abortion care; others are not. Some now have children, and others don’t know if they ever will. But they all recognize that their lives were directly affected by their partner’s access to reproductive health care, even if their bodies were not directly involved in the process. And they all worry about the effects of state-level abortion bans on people who find themselves in need of that care.
‘It Totally Changed The Trajectory Of Our Lives’
The lifelong impact of having a child is hard to overstate, as is the ability to choose when and under what circumstances to have or not to have a child. Within the context of a heterosexual, cisgender couple, “raising a child comes with financial, social and physical challenges for both women and men,” said Ashley Gray, the state advocacy adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Most people who have actively chosen parenthood would agree that those challenges are worth facing. But for potential parents who are not actively prepared to make that choice, carrying an unintended pregnancy to term can mean giving up on professional and educational dreams. It can mean sacrificing financial stability. It can mean being tied to the wrong relationship forever, or putting immense strain on a relationship that hasn’t had the time to grow.
Daniel, who supported a woman he was dating through an abortion in 2016 in Texas, thinks regularly about what it would mean for him to have a child right now.
“The person who I was with, we didn’t stay together, so there would have been that tie for us, having to raise a child,” he said.
He also thinks about the financial barriers he and his partner would have faced had they been forced to raise a child, and how abortion access opened up the possibilities he could consider for his own life.
“Right after the relationship ended, I did some soul-searching and decided to go back to school,” he said. “And I honestly don’t think that would have been possible had I had a child to raise.”
“So, yeah. Access to abortion changed my life.”
Each of the men HuffPost interviewed considered their experiences with abortion to be life-altering in some capacity. In 2011, in the midst of a personal mental health crisis, Josh found out that his ex-girlfriend was pregnant. They were based in New Jersey at the time, and their relationship had recently ended. Looking back, Josh sees his ability to have a career he loves as inextricably linked to the abortion care his ex-girlfriend was able to access.
“Anytime I am able to think about my career on a kind of normal trajectory and the fact that I was able to finish school, the fact that I’m able to use my degree, I can almost always tie it back to this event,” he said. “[Even] if by some miracle we were able to have the baby and be its direct parents in a traditional sense, I definitely never would have been able to finish college. ... I would have felt the pressure to make money as soon as possible, and for me at the time, that probably meant blue-collar work. So, I think inherently, the ability to make that decision set me on a completely different path in life.”
Sebastian, a married father of two in his mid-50s, has a hard time picturing what his life would look like if he and his then-girlfriend hadn’t terminated an unintended pregnancy in 1996. He had jumped into the relationship not too long after a breakup, and although it felt like things were getting serious, it had only been about six months.
Both he and his partner knew from their very first conversation about the matter that they weren’t ready to have a child. They had a tough, anxious discussion, during which she expressed her desire to have an abortion, and he agreed it was the right thing to do. But the process was still emotionally taxing for both of them. They were in their early 30s, an age at which many people do have children. But they knew it just wasn’t the right time because of the newness of their relationship and their lack of professional stability.
Sebastian is now married to that woman, and they have children together. They were able to plan their family as a team.
“If we had had to have a kid at that point, everything would have been different,” he said. “I know we were much less financially stable, and career-wise, not at all stable. My wife ended up getting a master’s in social work after we did have kids. We had two kids, and they were born right there in that same hospital [where she had an abortion]. ... It totally changed the trajectory of our lives.”
The Political Is Personal
Even before the most recent wave of anti-abortion bills, the United States was a nation divided when it came to abortion care. In 2018 alone, 15 states put in place 27 new restrictions on abortion and family planning care, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Sixty-three restrictions had been added the year before. Some states have enacted mandatory waiting periods for abortion care, which put a strain on people who have to travel a long distance to a provider or have inflexible work schedules. Other state legislatures have passed laws targeting clinics that provide abortion, making it harder for providers to keep their doors open. The federal Hyde Amendment restricts Medicaid from covering abortions, unless the pregnant person’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
All of these laws lead to the same result: It is simply harder and harder to access legal abortion care, especially for those without financial means.
And even when a pregnant person and their partner live in a state where care is fairly accessible and they have the means to do so, there are still roadblocks that can exact an emotional toll. The men HuffPost spoke to described confronting hordes of harassing protesters at clinics, navigating a 20-week abortion ban, rescheduling appointments and even encountering negative attitudes from the people who were supposed to be providing care.
Sebastian’s girlfriend worked at a hospital in Berkeley, California, at the time of her abortion, and even in his girlfriend’s own workplace, Sebastian recalls the male doctor who performed the abortion seeming stern and unsupportive.
“There was just this sort of air of disdain; I don’t know if disgust is too strong of a word,” he said. “But he seemed to find the whole business very unpleasant and sort of by way of introduction he said something kind of accusatory, to me. … I felt like I had fucked up, and now he had to ‘clean up our goddamn mess,’ you know?”
Sebastian said the idea of going to a male doctor for abortion care now feels “unimaginable.”
Like Sebastian, Tim and his girlfriend also faced minor roadblocks to abortion care in 2018. His girlfriend was between jobs at the time, so she did not have health insurance. She didn’t want to go to a clinic near their home, so they had to travel about an hour south to a Planned Parenthood clinic. Unfortunately, when they got there, they learned that particular clinic was only equipped to offer the abortion pill, not the surgical procedure, and they had missed the cutoff for the pill’s effectiveness by mere days.
They ended up going to a clinic in Washington, D.C., but couldn’t get an appointment until a week later, which meant having to take more time off from work and driving even further from their home. It also meant his girlfriend had to undergo a procedure that was more invasive and that Tim said left her feeling significantly more unsettled emotionally.
But despite the negative attitudes and smaller-scale barriers that some of the men and their partners faced, they were among the lucky ones. Due to location, finances, job flexibility, timing or knowledge of their respective states’ laws ― or some combination of the above ― they were all able to access care.
Daniel was partway through a year-long NARAL activist training program for young people in 2016 when he and the woman he was dating — a NARAL field organizer — found themselves facing an unintended pregnancy. By the time they found out she was pregnant, it had been 14 weeks. The couple was in Texas, a state with a 20-week abortion ban. Even being highly educated about how to navigate Texas’ abortion laws didn’t make “what we actually had to go up against, all the barriers” feel “any less stressful,” Daniel said.
“I think about [it] a lot, especially now because what’s happening in Alabama, Georgia and everywhere else: how access actually affects men,” he said. “And having a child right now, my life would be completely different, entirely different.”
‘It Always Happens To At Least Two People’
In 2015, amid a wave of right-wing efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, writer Lindy West put out a call to her Twitter followers to #ShoutYourAbortion. She started with her own, and the response was almost instantaneous. People who had experienced unintended pregnancy and chose to have abortions — most of them women — started telling their stories on a public platform.
“Telling our stories at full volume chips away at stigma, at lies, at the climate of shame that destroys the lives (sometimes literally) of women and girls and anyone anywhere on the gender spectrum who can become pregnant,” West wrote the following week in The Guardian, “especially those living in poverty, in rural areas and in hyper-religious and conservative households.”
The hashtag turned into a book and an informal movement. The idea was simple: There is power in unabashed personal storytelling, as long as you are not putting yourself in danger to do it.
So what role should cis men play in this storytelling movement? What impact can their stories have on other cis men, and how can they tell those stories responsibly, in a way that does not compromise the privacy of the partners’ that they went through their experiences with abortion alongside?
These are questions that some of the men HuffPost interviewed are still asking themselves.
Andrew, who supported a casual sexual partner through an abortion in 2012, when he was 21 years old, told HuffPost he wanted to speak up about his experiences but was struggling with how best to do so.
“I’ve thought for years about how do I talk about this, but also like, who really wants to hear my perspective on this?” he said. “I’ve always wished that more men talked about because ... it always happens to at least two people.”
He also said he is endlessly grateful that he and his partner were living in California when they were confronted with an unintended pregnancy, and that they were able to access affordable care at Planned Parenthood.
“We lived in places that despite the fact that we were super poor, [abortion] was an accessible thing,” he said. “I am just so fucking grateful for the fact that [Planned Parenthood was] there.” Andrew still donates to the organization regularly.
Several of the men HuffPost interviewed said they saw themselves as uniquely positioned to reach out to other cis men in their networks about the issue of abortion care. And it’s in this capacity that their stories might prove to be the most useful in shifting public opinion.
Research shows that sharing stories, especially between people who have preexisting social ties, can shift and shape attitudes. A 2014 study found that people who held anti-abortion views were less likely to say they knew someone who had had an abortion than their peers who held more liberal views on abortion, despite the fact that people across the political spectrum have abortions. The only people who participated in the study and had changed their opinions on abortion over time all cited personal contact with abortion stories as a reason.
Sarah K. Cowan, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University and the author of the study, concluded that this selective secret-sharing likely contributes to the relative stasis in opinions about abortion in the United States.
“Those who are opposed to a given secret are less likely to hear of it even if it exists in their social vicinity,” she wrote. “They then do not have to face the truth about those they know and confront their own beliefs about the secret and those implicated in it. Had they, they might have engaged in a process of social influence and changed their beliefs, but when secrets are kept from them, they do not have that opportunity.”
Josh recounted a few of the times he has shared his story with other cis men in an effort to destigmatize the experience.
“In the rare moments when it’s come up in kind of intimate settings ... I kind of feel a responsibility now to tell someone what it’s like to [go through an abortion with a partner], and destigmatize where I can,” he said. “I liken it to if your girlfriend breaks her leg, you want to take her to the doctor instead of let it be a lingering issue that she has to deal with for the rest of her life. Obviously, the [situations and procedures] are way different, but if you try to frame abortion in the context of it being a normal medical procedure, I think that’s helped a couple of guys wrap their minds around it.”
Daniel said he is “always aware of [his] position in these spaces” as a man who has been actively involved in reproductive rights advocacy.
“I think it’s all about making space and not taking up space,” he said, stressing the importance of not using cis men’s stories as a way to take away from women’s experiences. “But then [cis men] also [need to be] active in the fight to protect reproductive rights.”
Since cisgender men (and specifically cisgender white men) still hold a disproportionate amount of power in the United States, their voices, their money and their ability to reach other cis men on a personal level all matter. But this sharing also requires a delicate balancing act, and it can get messy at times. Abortion is an issue that will always most directly affect people who can get pregnant. It’s also something that the powerful should care about on a human rights level, regardless of whether it benefits them personally.
Georgia state Rep. David Dreyer (D), who organized an all-men protest against Georgia’s anti-abortion bill at the state Capitol in May, was blunt in his response when asked why men should speak up about abortion.
“First, all men have a woman in their life that’s been affected by this issue, whether they know it or not,” he said. “Second, men are obviously involved in all pregnancies. Most importantly, though, everyone had a right to control and maintain consent over their own bodies, no matter their gender.”
Andrew said he hopes that by sharing their stories, cis men can encourage other cis men to see abortion access as more than a women’s issue.
“I do kind of hope that there is some type of broadening of the understanding of why abortions are necessary besides just that women are entitled to it, which is absolutely true and should be the baseline,” he said. “But more than just women benefit from the fact that it’s available.”