Men Bereaved by Abortion

by author and journalist John Waters

One of the more commonplace arguments that crops up in relation to abortion is that it is a matter on which only women should have a voice. Even if we are to take this argument on its own reductive “gender” terms, an obvious question arises: may anyone speak on behalf of the male 50 per cent of those human creatures whose existences are snuffed out by abortion?

But there is another unspoken category of overlooked humans here also: the might-have-been fathers of those obliterated children. It is noticeable that, when this issue is referred to at all in these discussions, it usually gets disposed of in the conventionally censorious terms our society has contrived to dispose of fathers: “Oh, he won’t be seen for dust”, etc. etc. Just as self-styled “liberals” use hard cases to bludgeon problematic principles, they also like to advance worst-case caricatures to disallow the claims of inconvenient parties whose involvement might complicate things more than liberals like (a pretty low threshold, generally speaking).

But imagine a 19 year-old boy, perhaps your son, brother or nephew, who gets his 18-year-old girlfriend pregnant. The pregnancy is unplanned, i.e. in conventional terms “unwanted”. In the culture we have constructed of recent times, the question of the child’s survival is a matter primarily for the woman. Perhaps her parents will become involved, but nowadays this is unlikely to alter the dynamic significantly. The man or his family have no right to an opinion. The culturally-allocated role of the might-be father is to offer “unconditional support”.

But let’s imagine that the woman has not quite made up her mind.  She is taking her time with the decision. This, we insist, is her prerogative entirely. The man – the putative father of the child-in-the-balance has no entitlement to speak for himself or his would-be son or daughter. He waits to hear the fate of his child.

In that period of uncertainly, what is to be his disposition? He may be about to become a father or he may not.  Indeed, in his own mind he may already be a father, but this is something he will be well advised to keep to himself.

Western societies increasingly take the following view: If his child is allowed to live, this man must be available, for the rest of his life, to love and provide for his child – emotionally, materially, psychologically, and in manifold other ways. He will be expected – by the mother, her family and friends, and by society in general – to step up to the plate and become a loving, caring and responsible father. He will also be expected to live his life thenceforth as if these days or hours of indecision and mulling-over have never occurred –  as if the idea of obliterating his child had never been considered. From the moment his child is delivered from the threat of the abortionist’s knife, he must locate in himself the qualities of love, devotion, duty and protectiveness that society feels entitled to demand from a father while implacably refusing him the legal basis from which to protect his child.

If, on the other hand, it is decided that his child is to be destroyed, he should be able to go about his life as if nothing has happened, as if he never had a child, the prospect of a child, even the thought of a child.

You do not hear or read much in the media about male bereavement by abortion, but it is nonetheless a real syndrome, documented in numerous academic studies. This research tells us that abortion causes many men to become emotionally overwhelmed, to experience disturbing thoughts, feelings of grief and loss. They react either by silence or hostility.

Reviewing how abortion impacts intimate relationships, Coleman, Rue & Spence (2007) reported that men tend to exert greater control than women over the expression of painful emotions, and so tend to intellectualize grief, and cope alone. The study also found that men are inclined to identify their primary role as providing support for their partners, even after an abortion—even if they opposed the decision. The study also revealed that men are more likely than women to experience feelings of despair long after the abortion, and are accordingly more at risk of suffering chronic grief.  Another study, (Coyle, 2007) found that men whose children have been aborted experience feelings of grief, guilt, anger, depression, anxiety, helplessness, powerlessness, and other feelings akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that they tend to repress these feelings rather than expressing them.  PTSD symptoms, which manifest in 40% of men implicated by abortion, can take an average of 15 years to manifest. Some studies (Coleman & Nelson, 1998; Kero & Lalos, 2000; and Lauzon et al., 2000; Mattinson, 1985) have found evidence that some men grieve more than the mother following the loss of an unborn child, giving the lie to conventional notions about the male as emotionally disconnected from his child. In fact, a great number of men experience abortion as the actual death of a child. Such feelings are frequently exacerbated by the man’s inability to understand what the woman expects of him, with many women experiencing ambivalent feelings which cause them to emit contradictory and confusing messages. Due to the relentless propaganda that attends such matters, many men assume that their role is to ‘support’ the woman even when he disagrees with the decision to abort, whereas in truth the woman may secretly wish for the father to talk her out of killing the child.

I wonder: in the event that his child is not permitted to live, at what precise moment is the father expected to extinguish in himself the love, duty, affection and devotion that would have been required to parent a living child – and demanded of the father by society, even though it simultaneously forbids him to have any say in the matter? Or, conversely, if the child is given the green light, does the father’s responsibility to ignite in himself the various qualities that are expected of a good-enough father begin from the moment of the announcement of the baby’s reprieve? Or is such a suddenly incorporated father entitled to a period of time to initiate the process of ignition in himself? If so, how long might he have to do this?

Of what do we imagine a man is made?

Does modern Western society imagine that its young males come equipped with some hidden mechanism for use when their children are annihilated – when, having been briefly invigorated with the possibility of fatherhood, they find that the emotions normally called upon in this context are not needed? Or, on the other hand, do we—collectively, I mean—believe that a man who has started in himself the process of grieving his child should be able to arrest this procedure and behave as though his child had merely had a miraculous recovery from a serious illness?

What kind of men might such a society expect to produce? Automatons with switches secreted in various regions of their bodies for turning on and off their human passions and emotions? Or – if flesh-and-blood males with real human desires, affections and capacities – what might we expect to happen to the hearts of men under such a regime? Would a society such as ours be entitled to be surprised if it ended up producing male humans who were incapable of loving, or grieving, or telling the difference between?


About the author

John Waters is a Permanent Research Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA. Having started his career in 1981 with the Irish Music journal Hot Press, he later wrote in The Irish Times from 1990 to 2014. His first book, Jiving at the Crossroads (1991), about Irish politics around the 1980s, became a massive best-seller. He has written a number of books and plays for stage and radio and currently writes a fortnightly essay for the American magazine of religion in the public square, First Things. His latest book – Give us Back the Bad Roads – has just been published






7 thoughts on “Men Bereaved by Abortion

  1. Reply
    Andy Thomas - December 8, 2018

    A great article. It’s rare than anyone should show concern how men feel in this. The author clearly does.

    However, I’m wondering if the author is aware that he framed the discussion in such a way as to attribute all responsibility to men himself? Look:
    “But imagine a 19 year-old boy, perhaps your son, brother or nephew, who gets his 18-year-old girlfriend pregnant.”
    So he “got her pregnant” and, by implication, she just lay there. So the responsibility is all his and his girlfriend had no agency in this? This is long unquestioned cultural narrative–sex is something men do to women.
    In reality, it is women who almost all birth control in their hands in the modern world, and many do lie in order to get themselves pregnant. If you think about it, we only get to the have the children women want us to have.
    Nothing will change until the language changes, because language frames how we think.

  2. John Barry
    John Barry - December 8, 2018

    Good point Andy. I will pass this on to John Waters.

  3. Vincent McGovern
    Vincent McGovern - December 8, 2018

    Only a few people in existence can write with such depth and knowledge on this most emotive of subjects. John Waters is one, perhaps the very best there is. Above all, he manages the incredibly difficult trick of deeply analysing a situation without indulging in gender bashing, he beautifully demonstrates the double standards that exist in all of society.

    We are all enlightened and further educated when we read such. The other trick he pulls off, (no pun intended) is to educate by questioning the reader to the uncomfortable depths of consciousness. Nothing is more important than human life, yet many of us have mixed feelings of varying strength where abortion is concerned.

    Rightly so the mother or mother to be get’s support, we all know of too many in the past who were denied such support especially in Holy Catholic Ireland, where I’m from. And yet, with abortion recently made legal in Ireland, the discussion resolutely ignores men and fathers. Men are expected to provide emotional, financial and practical support at all times before during and after pregnancy, while having zero legal influence before, during or at best a pretence after the child is born. And people wonder why so many men have alcohol dependency, drug addiction, mental health issues and commit suicide in such high numbers?

    1. John Barry
      John Barry - December 8, 2018

      Agreed. Waters has a rare talent which makes reading a pleasure, even on a difficult topic like this one.

  4. Reply
    Robert Monroe, Jr. - January 24, 2019

    When my wife and I were dating she miscarriaged and had to undergo a D&C. Afterwards, I brought her back to her apartment and started to care for her. A few hours later, her female friends arrived, practically pushed me out of the bedroom, and took over. None of them realized that we were both mourning the loss. Additionally, I was asked by my girlfriend to not tell any of my friends because she was embarrassed. I agreed to her request but this led to an increase in my alcohol consumption. It was obvious to one of my friends that something was wrong and he pulled me aside to ask me. I broke down crying as I told him about the miscarriage and how it made me feel. I realized that I had to talk to my girlfriend about how wrongly her friends had treated me and explain to her the loss that I was feeling. She said that she had no idea I was feeling that way and it never occurred to her that men would experience a sense of loss from a miscarriage or an abortion. Society does a good job of negating men’s feelings, complaining that men don’t share our feelings, and often being uncomfortable when men do share our feelings. It’s a damned if we do and damned if we don’t scenario that I don’t see changing any time soon.

    1. John Barry
      John Barry - January 24, 2019

      Thanks Robert for sharing that. It’s a recipe for disaster when we simultaneously get the message ‘don’t be so stoical’ combined with ‘you can’t say that!’
      Double binds like this are bad for mental health, as RD Laing pointed out.

  5. John Barry
    John Barry - February 7, 2019

    Like a lot of people, I found the deaf sign for ‘abortion’ quite disturbing

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