The concept of a woman’s right to an abortion, through a highly divisive topic, is largely heralded throughout the developed world as a key tenet of gender equality. The World Health Organization (WHO), charged with establishing and enforcing international health norms, states unequivocally on their website that “access to safe abortion protects women’s and girls’ health and human rights.” In this same vein, abortion is largely legalized throughout the industrialized Western Hemisphere as well as in China, and is considered by international organizations like the United Nations as a marker of a nation’s respect for human rights as a whole.
In the half-century since abortion’s widespread legalization, women’s rights activists have fiercely protested abortion restrictions, increasingly citing the desire for “gender equality” as a foremost reason for their impassioned fight. In 2015, the feminist essayist Katha Pollitt wrote a column for The Nation boldly titled “Gender Equality Is Not Possible Without Abortion.” Within, she brands abortion restrictions as a kind of criminalization of female bodies and even re-terms unwanted pregnancies “forced childbearing.” Viewed this way, abortion does appear to be a great equalizer of the sexes, allotting women the same rights as men to decide their bodily autonomy.
At this juncture in the debate, it’s eye-opening to consider the varying male reactions to this relatively new concept. Indeed, some men seem to eagerly embrace the concept of abortion as a marker of gender equality, going so far as to become impassioned activists spurred on by tragedies such as the 2012 death of a pregnant woman in Galway, Ireland after her doctor denied what some have called a potentially life-saving abortion.
Yet male pro-choice advocates remain either largely silent or small in numbers, prompting one leading North American publication to publish a piece aptly titled “Men Aren’t Quite Sure How to Be Abortion-Rights Activists,” in which it surveyed the lack of male participation in the pro-choice movement. The article quotes one male pro-choice activist, who, after attending a NARAL abortion rights convention in Georgia, tweeted: “Men...we are not showing up.” NARAL is certainly doing its part to invite men into the movement, evidenced by its painting abortion as a family-friendly issue when it posted to social media earlier this year: “Happy #FathersDay to all the pro-choice dads out there! #MenForChoice support equality and value bodily autonomy—and that makes them great role models!”
At the same time that some men are are disinterested in actively participating in the abortion movement, there are others who feel “left out” of the conversation. BBC News delved into the issue in a 2019 investigative piece, in which reporters spoke with men who desire a larger say in whether or not their partners could abort their preborn children. As one post-abortive man told the news outlet, "I tried everything, I offered to marry her, to take the baby myself, or to offer it up for adoption.” Another spoke of deep-seated shame, depression, and regret, explaining: “Men are meant to be protectors, so there is a sense of failure—failing to protect the mother and the unborn child, failing to be responsible.”
A national web-based study of post-abortive men supports the idea that abortion is traumatizing, reporting that “4 out of 10 men experienced chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms . . . 88 percent feeling grief and sadness, 82 percent guilt, 77 percent anger, 64 percent anxiety, 68 percent isolation, 31 percent helplessness, 40 percent sexual problems.” A director at the Institute for Pregnancy Loss noted the study and called a woman’s right to abort despite her partner’s unwillingness, “unequal protection under the law.”
Clearly then, not everyone considers abortion an obvious maxim of gender equality. But while some protest a woman’s right to choose on the grounds that both parties should honor the life created in the womb, there are those who believe that abandoning parenthood should be legal for both sexes. This sentiment spawned a 1998 proposal by sociology professor Frances Goldscheider in which she advocated for what is popularly called a “financial abortion.” In Goldscheider’s words:
A man would be notified when a child was accidentally conceived, and he would have the opportunity to decide whether or not to undertake the legal rights and responsibilities of parenthood. The decision would need to be made in a short window of time and once the man had made his decision, he would be bound by it for life. This means a guy couldn't decide to opt out of fatherhood a few years down the track when it no longer suited him. The decision would also be recorded legally—perhaps on the child's birth certificate, or in a court order.
Some men’s rights activists have since latched on to the idea, with one adherent even going to court to fight for his right to a “financial abortion” after his partner became pregnant. He lost the case on the grounds that “in the case of a father seeking to opt-out of fatherhood and thereby avoid child support obligations, the child is already in existence and the state therefore has an important interest in providing for his or her support.”
At the time of the trial, the National Center for Men gave its full-hearted support to the plaintiff, stating that, “Women now have control of their lives after an unplanned conception, but men are routinely forced to give up control, forced to be financially responsible for choices only women are permitted to make, forced to relinquish reproductive choice.”
In 2016 a writer for Vice suggested a refined version of this concept, writing that
there's the argument that there should be a level playing field—women and men should both have the right to opt out of parenthood if they want to. A woman can choose whether to have an abortion to keep the child, without the man involved interfering with her choice. However, if she does decide to keep the child, the man should have the right to choose whether he wants to become a father and take on the legal rights and responsibilities that come with that. Both should be able to decide what they want to do, based on their own individual circumstances and beliefs, and neither should be able to interfere with the other person's decision. Essentially, reproductive equality and autonomy, for both genders.
Another pro-choice feminist echoed this belief, asking readers in an opinion editorial for ABC News: “Is it fair for people to be forced to become parents against their wishes? If it's not fair for a woman to be forced to bear a child or have an abortion, it follows it's not fair for a man to be forced to become a parent.”
Yet despite the rallying cry for increased reproductive choices for men, at least some in the pro-choice movement reject the idea of “financial abortions” as an equalizing counterbalance. As one progressive public policy expert and feminist wrote in response to the growing conversation around the idea, “Making men more considerate of their role in pregnancy is a good thing, but codifying the ability to abdicate their responsibility doesn't seem to do it.”
Then there are those who insist that relieving either gender of responsibility is wrong, and adhere to an ideology in which abortion is neither a constitutional right nor a societal good. One Christian public policy organization recently published the perspective of a male pro-life advocate who wrote that “the movement desperately needs men...to adequately care for women in ways that inspire them to choose life.” He even offers advice on how to take on more responsibility, suggesting they “serve the single and pregnant women of [their] local church [and] throw baby showers for young pregnant women.”
Some pro-life men have experienced abortions of their own and joined the anti-abortion movement after coming to terms with the psychological damage done to them. One such man shared his story with a pro-life organization, explaining that his lightbulb moment came years later:
“I've become far more enlightened on the procedure, realizing there's an all-too-real human dimension to the process. Long after the abortion was carried out, the emotional fallout continues, at least for me. I still occasionally have sleepless nights, thinking about what we did and why. . . . Who was the child we never knew? Would he have been my son? What would he or she be like today, at 20 years of age? How would I justify either of my teenage daughters having never been given the chance to be the remarkable young ladies they've become?
The pro-life perspective stands out in comparison to the others, which focus largely on how to even the playing field between men and women to achieve reproductive equity. Rather than eschew responsibility for pregnancies, anti-abortion groups argue that both men and women are best served by accepting full responsibility for any life created during sexual intercourse. This worldview examines humanity not from a lens of equity but from one of personal responsibility and respect for the existence of human life.
Given these diverse perspectives, it seems that gender equality is not quite as simplistic as pro-choice mantras about a “woman’s right to choose” would have both men and women believe. In some ways, the controversy appears to be an extension of the battle of the sexes, with each side arguing for the right to abdicate responsibility for pregnancy and childrearing. Women’s rights advocates preach that abortion helps to achieve gender equality by removing responsibility from the woman, while men’s rights advocates say that it goes too far in the opposite direction, offering women a “way out” that is denied of men in the same situation. Indeed, a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center suggests that male dissatisfaction with modern notions of gender equality is alive and well, with more than one in four of the men surveyed admitting that gender equality measures have happened at their expense.
Despite popular insistence that abortion is a vital tenet of gender equality, the reality is far more complicated, as both men and women consider the societal implications of giving a woman the right to “opt-out” of pregnancy. Seen from this lens, abortion appears to be further damaging gender relations, sending men and women down a path of demanding equal treatment while sidestepping obligations that, long ago when perhaps relationships and relations were more intentional, once bonded couples together.