Earlier this week, I blogged about a conference on how abortions impact men emotionally. I pointed out that there's a dearth of dispassionate research exploring whether the controversial procedure affects men's mental health. That's very much the case, but I'd like to follow up with perspective, as well as some data, from one of the few academic researchers who has tackled the issue: Arthur Shostak, an emeritus professor of sociology at Drexel University. We weren't able to connect before that post.
Since the early 1980s, Shostak has been periodically surveying and interviewing what he calls "waiting-room men"—the 600,000 or so guys who sit and wait each year as their partners undergo an abortion, and who help them return home afterward. Though firmly pro-choice, Shostak says he considers every abortion "a tragedy" and cites reducing the need as one of the reasons he studies how the procedure affects men. Thirty years ago, he went through an abortion with his partner; since then, he has surveyed upward of 3,000 waiting-room men about their experiences.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
How often do men accompany their partners to an abortion clinic for the procedure?
In my experience, about half of women are accompanied by their partner. Of that half, about 4 percent identify as being opposed to the abortion. The rest, in varying degrees, are supportive.
A recent conference sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese of Chicago highlighted the negative effects an abortion can have on the mental health of men. Do you find much evidence of negative effects in your research?
I would say that 90 percent of men consider the day of an abortion to be one of the most stressful of their lives. Women commonly ask that the guy talk about this subject with no one. So, yes, it's a very stressful time for guys, but I haven't found the effects as widespread as the conference implies. If the question is, "Do some men take away remorse and guilt?"—yes, of course, some men do. However, my research suggests that they account for well under 5 percent of men in waiting rooms. Ninety-five percent of guys go on with their lives sobered by the experience but not mentally scarred by it.
Tell me more about that 5 percent.
I find that they tend not to be robust and on-top-of-it guys. They generally have poor relations with the female. They tend to be much more religious, and feel guilty that this is commonly an out-of-wedlock relationship. They have guilt about not getting along with the female. Then they have guilt about the fetus.
What does the public fail to understand about how abortion affects men?
One of the most difficult sentences that I know of in the English language is this: "Honey, I have just learned that I am pregnant, and we are going to have an abortion." It brings astonishing information—and also resolution—in just a sentence. And it's not, "Honey, I'm pregnant, what are we going to do?" So, it's a double blow for men, and I think that's got to change. I'm arguing we can redefine an unwanted pregnancy more usefully as a couple's challenge—not a woman's problem.
But it sounds like you think most men actually get off too easy?
I think women who do not draw men into the dialogue are missing an opportunity to help men grow up. Guys should sweat the abortion experience like women do. I think they have got to help shoulder responsibility for what they've set in motion.
How do men go about shouldering that responsibility?
They listen to the woman. They draw out a woman's feelings and thoughts. They recognize that there's going to be a roller coaster of emotions prior to the abortion, and that there are going to be days where she's resolute one way, and then days where she's resolute the other way. They are supportive of her decision. They also find the opportunity to be honest with her about their own feelings.
Does anything else need to change?
Over 90 percent of my 3,000 waiting-room men say they want to know more about contraception. Thirty-eight percent expressed interest in getting take-away information and brochures about birth control to ponder and share. Yet, the clinics doing abortions in this country are not doing everything they could—to put it politely—to help men with this. None of the clinics we surveyed in our 2004 sample regularly offered a family planning discussion. Now consider: 25 percent of men in the waiting room are repeaters. Clinics should sponsor small-group discussions for males, complete with "show-and-tell" attention to the technologies of contraception. Clinic personnel should include a male counselor able to relate well to both sexes.
Do you have any advice for men who are going through an abortion with their partner?
I would recommend that men look at the website Men and Abortion, which I helped create along with Claire Keyes, the director of Allegheny Reproductive Health Center. It explains what an abortion entails, offers answers to FAQs, and offers links to pro-male clinics.
For more on abortion from U.S. News's On Women blogger, Deborah Kotz, see these posts about pro-life drugstores, the parties' changing stances on the issue, and the effect abortion has on women's mental health.