How men can be better allies in the fight for reproductive rights | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

As the conversation about abortion rages, it strikes me that I have never heard a man tell his abortion story publicly. The emphasis on disclosure when it comes to abortion means that we have become used to hearing women’s stories. But what, if you’ll forgive me for ironically borrowing a well-worn phrase, about the men? We hear a lot, too much, from men who are anti-abortion, and little from those who support it, or who have benefited from it.

When the New York Times asked men to come forward with their abortion stories, the social media response was mixed. There were the men who thought the whole thing was hilarious, as though the thought of abortion had never troubled them. There were those who thought we shouldn’t hear from men about abortion at all, that men should stay out of it. And then there were those who felt perhaps that having men as allies could bolster the cause; that framing it as a “women’s problem” – and not a vital element of family planning that benefits people regardless of gender – plays into the hands of the conservative Christian right.

In the popular cultural imagination of the right, abortion is used by a certain “type” of woman, an archetypal Jezebel; and even for the left, she’s often envisaged as a single, vulnerable young woman. There’s an empty space where the man might be. We never see him paying for the abortion and rarely see him attending the clinic; nor do we see him as part of a couple who can’t afford to have any more children, or who have made a difficult decision due to a foetal anomaly, or who simply don’t want to be parents.

When men are supportive of abortion rights, they often get it wrong, says Joe Strong, a researcher at the London School of Economics who studies abortion and masculinities. Often, those who support safe and legal abortion mess up by centring themselves, or reinforcing “patriarchal ideas” by using arguments such as “hands off my wife’s uterus!” or “I’m doing this for my daughters”. He’s noted a trend for articles saying sweeping things like “abortion is a men’s issue too”; but it is not, he says, men’s rights that are at stake.

Men should care fundamentally about the reproductive rights of others, whether abortion affects them or not. Of course, in many cases, abortion is the deciding factor in whether a man becomes a father or not, and men will respond emotionally to the life-changing repercussions of this. The crux of the issue, Strong says, is, “How do we allow men to support women’s right to an abortion without elevating their voices over those of women? How do you have a conversation that doesn’t imply that a man is a 50% decision-maker in a couple unit when they just aren’t?” It’s important to hear men’s experiences, not only to boost support for women’s reproductive rights, but also so that policymaking can reflect reality. It’s a delicate balance.

Speak to men privately, and they will be honest about the benefits that abortion has brought to their lives. “When we found out we were pregnant we were gobsmacked,” one man, Aaron, who was in his early 20s at the time, reflects. He had been dating his girlfriend for a short while and she had been using an IUD. “When we discussed it, it was clear that we were both on the same page. Neither of us wanted to be parents.”

They had difficulty accessing the procedure after one doctor refused her request, telling her instead to “pray”, meaning she had a later-stage termination than desired.

“Whenever we talked about it afterwards we agreed on it being the right decision – we couldn’t have been parents. Both of us have had pretty intense mental health issues since … so God knows how we could have raised a child together. It was definitely overall a good thing, but a traumatic experience and something that will stay with us both for ever.” They separated but remained friends.

Hearing Aaron’s story highlights the role that men can play in the decision not to become a parent: here we see a man who is supportive and sensitive to his partner’s feelings, and now, over a decade later, is politically committed to the right to abortion access. Interestingly, Strong’s research found that it is not so much a man’s opinion on abortion that drives his involvement in decison-making, but “their feelings on how a pregnancy is going to impact their masculinity”. Often, he says, there’s a fear of being seen as a “deadbeat” dad, a classed, racialised term that carries a lot of stigma. Men ask themselves if a pregnancy will bolster their power in the world (say if they achieve the ideal of father as breadwinner), or not.

“Even though she said she didn’t want to keep it, I felt like a piece of shit. I had always been told that it was a man’s responsibility to look after any pregnancy they had caused and I felt that I was somehow putting pressure on her … even though she assured me it wasn’t the case,” says Aaron, reflecting on the role that ideas of masculinity have played in his own story.

From a policy perspective, Strong argues that we need to grapple with masculinities if we are to truly see a discussion that reflects reality, otherwise many men will continue to link their ability to control another person’s body with their conception of manhood. Men’s only contribution shouldn’t be the reproductive fascism of the Republican party, or the sort of radicalising “support groups” we see in the US, where men lament the fatherhood that abortion has “robbed” them of.

Men who are pro-choice, who have perhaps been told that abortion is a women’s issue, may feel the sensitive thing to do is to not speak at all. But can’t we find a way for men to talk about abortion without infringing a woman’s bodily autonomy, or speaking over her, so that they can become the ultimate allies: men who acknowledge that abortion will never relate to their bodies, but who support it because they believe it is a right.

And, failing that, men can always get their wallets out and donate to feminist organisations. They can use their money, use their patriarchy – as Strong puts it – without needing to use their voices at all.

What’s working

Another life changing bit of kit this week, from a brand called Doona, who have invented a car seat that turns into a stroller. As I don’t drive or own a car, I’m occasionally reliant on taxis, which is where this amazing invention comes into its own. When you get to the other side, the wheels simply pop down at the press of a button.

What’s not

I have yet to find a pair of earplugs that will completely blot out the sound of a baby crying, for when my husband starts his shift and I retire to a dark room for a few hours’ precious sleep.

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at guardian.letters@theguardian.com

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