It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said to his girlfriend. The two had been feigning small talk over a cold drink, but at this, the conversation turned noticeably more awkward. “It’s not really an operation at all,” he continued. “I know you wouldn’t mind it.” She looked down at the ground but said nothing. “I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time,” he persisted.
The scene comes out of an Ernest Hemingway story called “Hills Like White Elephants.” The operation is never named, but a discerning reader can figure out that the girl is pregnant. According to the unnamed man, “It’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.” For her part, the “thing” is her child, and she clearly doesn’t want to talk about “it” this way.
Published in 1927, “Hills Like White Elephants” shows that abortion was practiced long before the feminist movement declared it a woman’s “right.” It also shows that abortion was not just a women’s issue. In truth, despite the feminists’ attempts to silence men on the subject, abortion is, and always will be, a matter that concerns men as much as women. Every unborn child, whether aborted or carried to term, is the offspring of a father as well as a mother, and the mere presence of “it” presents a new “thing” in his life with which he must contend. From the moment he receives the news, he has a choice to make: Will he rise, like a man, to the momentous task his male activity has wrought? Or will he shrink back in search of some sideways escape? The choice he makes will have lifelong consequences for him.
The Losing Choice
Yes, him. Though the man in the Hemingway story appears to have the “bother” coolly all-but-solved while it is the girl who is quietly troubled, the evidence is mounting that abortion isn’t the easy out it appears to be for men either. The devastating effects of abortion on women have been documented for years now, through longitudinal studies and through pushback organizations like the Silent No More Awareness Campaign. Now, at last, the aftereffects on men are beginning to see daylight, too.
Arthur Shostak, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Drexel University, was an early voice insisting that abortion is not just a women’s issue. After his own personal involvement in an abortion, he placed questionnaires in the waiting rooms of abortion clinics, surveyed a thousand of the respondents, and published the results in Men and Abortion: Losses, Lessons, and Loves (1985).
Two major themes stood out. The first was “the deep involvement of the men.” Eighty-four percent felt that they had been a full partner in resolving the pregnancy, but few were at peace with the resolution. The second was the men’s anxiety and high level of personal distress. “An overwhelming proportion of them had thoughts about the fetus, had dreamed about the child that would not be and anticipated misgivings after the abortion,” Shostak found. “Ninety-eight percent said that if they could help it, they would never, ever find themselves in this situation again.”
Shostak himself, although he voices no objection to abortion on moral grounds, felt likewise. “While I believe my lover and I chose the least-worst of the options available to us over two decades ago, I have lingering regrets about the situation.”
A recent study by C. T. Coyle and V. M. Rue, published in The Journal of Pastoral Counseling in 2010, confirms Shostak’s findings. “Male participants were found to demonstrate clinical levels of anxiety, higher than normative anger scores, and greater levels of grief than men who experienced involuntary pregnancy loss,” the authors wrote. “Some men will appear to be angry,” Coyle noted, “when, in fact, other underlying emotions such as grief and helplessness are the real source of their suffering.” The primary meaning ascribed by the men to abortion was “profound loss.”
Brad Mattes, executive director of Life Issues Institute and a founding member of MAN (Men and Abortion Network), estimates that more than thirty million men are struggling to cope with this loss. Mattes, too, says that the most consistently evident symptom is anger. In addition, a man may turn to alcohol, drugs, or overwork to dull the pain of knowing he participated in or was too “weak” to prevent the death of his unborn baby. He may develop insomnia, panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, or self-imposed isolation. He may be unable to hold a job, or he may be an excessive risk-taker, setting himself up for failure. This, Mattes suggests, “may come from the feeling that he deserves what he gets for being a loser and failing when it counted most - protecting his unborn baby.”
Mattes is onto something deep here. A longtime counselor of post-abortive men, he draws the connection between a man’s post-abortion distress and certain traits unique to the male psyche. “Instinct drives men to achieve success in five key areas of their lives. Men are often defined by their ability to: [experience] pleasure, procreate, provide, protect and perform.” Abortion represents a failure on his part to protect his child and its mother. It undermines his very manhood - of course he will go into distress. Furthermore, the loss reverberates and magnifies over time because the abortion forever extinguished his opportunity to protect, provide for, and take pleasure in that child. Abortion loss encompasses more than just the loss of the child. Abortion exacts a loss of manhood.
Contending voices differ on the role of men with respect to abortion. A feminist blogger at AbortionGang.org who calls herself “Not Guilty” wants to silence all male voices in the abortion discussion, while Dr. Shostak, who describes himself as “unswervingly pro-choice,” says men should be more involved when abortion is chosen. Neither of these approaches will help anyone, male or female, because neither of them addresses the root problem, which is abortion itself. Men need to speak up, not only to break the spiral of silence on post-abortion suffering, but to openly and forcefully reject in toto the emasculating pro-choice paradigm whereby abortion is a permissible option.
The voice of a principled man can make the difference between life and death. Consider this reflection from an unlikely corner. Raquel Welch, now in her 70s, wrote recently about the early days of her first pregnancy.
I wasn’t prepared for this development. . . . But “the choice” was not mine alone to make. I had always wanted to have Jim’s babies, but wasn’t at all sure how he would react. At the time, we were 19-year-old newlyweds, struggling to make ends meet. But he was unflinching in his desire to keep our baby, and his positive, upbeat attitude about the whole prospect turned everything around. I have always loved Jim for how he responded in that moment.
There are some things a man cannot know unless a woman tells him. Ms. Welch hints at one of them; here it is straight: for a woman, pregnancy can be terrifying - wonderful, yes, but terrifying too. Another life has taken over your body, and it can be both physically and emotionally overwhelming. It is at this point that a man can and must be his child’s advocate, protector, and defender. If he isn’t, then he fails to accept the call of manhood and risks becoming an accomplice to his child’s executioner.
It is fitting that the man in Hemingway’s story remains unnamed. His moral spinelessness and abdication of responsibility constitute an utter failure of manhood. Men worthy of being named protect the girl by marrying her first. And then they protect their children by manning up and finishing what they started. Real men are pro-life.