Talk to women who’ve had abortions, and you’ll hear horror stories about male partners who try to force them into a decision, downplay the situation or ghost because they can’t deal. One woman told me her ex-boyfriend showed up drunk the day of her appointment; another dated a guy who refused to pay for half of the procedure because he claimed she could “get it done for free anywhere.”
While the basic male response should be straightforward — listen, be supportive, show up — most men aren’t equipped to handle the complex physical and psychological changes women experience when they end a pregnancy, let alone understand their own emotions. In studies, men admit they felt helpless throughout the process, with only 40 percent saying they were “supportive” of their partners, and that afterwards, they struggled with guilt, anxiety and depression. They don’t talk much about it either, treating the experience as a shameful secret and burying it deep in their past.
Male emotions should never be the focus when dealing with an abortion—particularly in a political environment where men make the bulk of the decisions around regulating and funding women’s health care. But guys will never learn to adequately support the women in their lives if they treat their experiences with unplanned pregnancies as classified information — either with themselves or the other men in their lives. To start the conversation, I spoke with eight pro-choice men about how they acted and felt when women in their lives decided to have an abortion. Their often painful, confused answers prove that guys being honest about how this so-called “women’s issue” deeply affects them will make the process easier for everyone involved.
[Editor’s Note: So as to elicit the most honest responses possible, we gave each of the men quoted here the option of using a pseudonym or going with just their first names. While a number of them allowed us to use their full names, we’ve noted who requested a pseudonym with an asterisk.]
Jeremy*, 35, Musician, Toronto
When my girlfriend told me she was pregnant, I had this weird, crazy, sinking feeling. I was 29 and had never prepared to consider the psychological impact of the whole thing. I just wanted the situation to go away. Then very quickly a manly response kicked in: “This is going to be fine.” I reverted to some TV and movie version of what an abortion was going to be like and thought, That shit’s not a big deal.
I told her, “We’re going to get through it, and I’m going to come over to talk.” I knew neither of us were in a position to make this a reality. We’d recently gotten back together after some infidelity on my part, and our relationship was complicated. We both decided almost immediately that having an abortion was a hard “yes.”
After I took her to the clinic in the morning, I was supposed to leave for a weeklong work trip. I feel horrible about this, but I didn’t want to fuck over my colleagues; so after I made her brunch, I left. She seemed okay, and I tried to convince her it had been a super minimal procedure.
I drove back to see her that night, but the next morning, I left again. She was crying and said, “Are you serious? What are your fucking priorities?” At the time, I’d deemed her sort of mentally unstable, which is a horrible thing to say. I had no idea how the process would affect her physically and emotionally. That night I partied and did some drugs. It was complete escapism for me.
After a month or two, it really hit me that this situation had been a fork in my life. I felt a weird loss of life that I’d never expected to be a byproduct of all this. That feeling was a big catalyst for me to take a real look at myself. After we broke up, I went to therapy and learned I had a hard time being honest about my emotions, especially with my partners. I told myself, “You can’t be this fucking person anymore,” and went through a big psychospiritual change in my life.
Today, I don’t believe in ending a pregnancy any less, but I’d think a lot harder about the decision if it happened again.
David Eigenberg, 53, Actor, Chicago
When my wife got pregnant in 2003 we were really excited because we’d already been through two miscarriages. Then, at around 14 weeks, we got a call from the OB-GYN early one morning saying he had some really, really bad news: Our baby had tested positive for a rare, lethal condition called triploidy. It was going to die in utero, and even if it did survive, it would be born brain-dead.
I remember holding my wife’s head and weeping. Abortion is a difficult decision, but when it’s coupled with something you so longingly want to keep, it becomes a devastating decision. My wife was faced with the fact that the fetus she loved so deeply was dying inside of her and… [Chokes up.] You know, it’s hard to talk about even now.
[Collecting himself.] She decided it was time to say goodbye.
I told her, “Whatever you want and whatever you need, I’m with you.”
I had pain and anguish, but hers was on a deeper level. Some men would say, “My grief is the same,” but in my opinion, there’s a primal difference for the woman who carries the baby. She was the one who was going to lose this life in the procedure, not me.
After the abortion, there was pain and loss but also a relief that there was a conclusion. My job at that point was to hold her and be quiet. It’s often necessary to talk about what you’re going through, but other times, there’s a purity in allowing for how language fails us. Sometimes there isn’t anything to say, and it’s just fucking hard. Sometimes you just have to be there and do your time with someone you love.
The next year was hard. I was angry at the universe, and at times, that anger got turned toward my wife, which I feel shitty about. I didn’t have tools to navigate my anger, so we ended up going to couples’ therapy and I started taking an antidepressant. We had a bad year, but we were there for each other and we muscled through it.
Dan, 56, Technology Engineer, Seattle
I really fucked this one up. At 51, I was having an affair with a 25-year-old and got her pregnant. When she told me at a coffee shop, I felt like the floor gave way.
I asked her what she wanted to do, and she was adamant that she wanted to get an abortion. She’d just graduated from college and was focused on her career. She also knew I had two children and a wife I wasn’t going to divorce.
My ex-wife had had an abortion when I was 20, and I knew it wasn’t a simple in-and-out procedure. There’s a lot of emotion involved. I sent my lover a lot of info, and we talked about it every day.
I drove her to the clinic, paid for the appointment and booked a nice hotel suite with flowers for her to recover in. But she ended up in the hospital because they’d made a couple of mistakes during the procedure. She was really sick, sleeping 24 hours a day and on all these medications. The doctors thought she was going to die. She had a really bad fever. Her parents, who are younger than me, didn’t want me at the hospital. But she did, so I took time off work to visit.
In the end, the doctors were able to fight off the infection, but I’m pretty sure she got a hysterectomy.
Overall, I kind of buried my feelings. I should’ve gone to counseling. That said, there’s nothing that can prepare you for the unexpected.
Jake McDaniel, 30, Union Representative, St. Louis
My wife Alison and I started dating in college after we met in a gender studies class. We had a lot in common in terms of our views on women’s rights and abortion. Before we got married five years later, we talked about how we both never wanted children because of our own family experiences and because there are already too many people on this planet.
A year after our wedding, however, Alison found out she was pregnant. We were in shock because she was on birth control. Even though we’d talked about not having children, we had to figure out whether we were still on the same page.
We reconvened after a few days. My initial response was, “It’s your body; it’s your choice.” Alison was like, “We’re married, and we need to make sure this is mutual.” I didn’t want to move forward with the pregnancy, but I would’ve supported her no matter what. I was raised by a single mom who was pro-choice, and I’ve always seen women in authority roles since I had few men in my life growing up.
We decided that even though she was pregnant, we still had the choice not to have kids. I’ve never been the best at communication and could’ve asked more questions during our conversations, but I don’t think that would’ve changed anything. Because Alison worked for NARAL, she knew Missouri makes women wait 72 hours to have an abortion to try and shame them. So instead, she went across the border to Illinois and got the the procedure done in just one appointment.
After Alison had the abortion, I had a vasectomy. Birth control shouldn’t just be the woman’s responsibility. The male doctor questioned Alison a lot more than me about not wanting children, even though I’m six years younger. It was kind of insulting.
We have no regrets. We’re content with our decision to end the pregnancy because not wanting kids was something that brought us together in the first place.
Leo Mara, 71, Retired Computer Programmer, California
Life in the mid-1960s was basically one continuous party. It was a pretty messed-up time, and there were a lot of drugs. I never got into heroin or anything like that, but I did do LSD, mescaline, glue in a bag and pretty much whatever else came along. And the first thing I thought about in the morning was, “Where’s the next hit?”
At 21, I was in a casual relationship with a woman named Sandy, but I also had another girlfriend or two. We’d probably smoked some grass and were just hanging out by the lake off-the-beaten path when she said, “I’m pregnant.”
I had some emotions — something inside me that said, “You’re going to be a daddy” — but they didn’t overwhelm me. I didn’t want to bring the life we were living to an end and get a 9-to-5 kind of thing. Not to mention, I didn’t have the ability to take care of myself, so how was I going to take care of someone else?
I was leading the path to getting an abortion, which was difficult for Sandy to wrap her head around. She came from a very religious Catholic family and was initially leaning toward keeping the baby. I was more rational and said, “We’re too young.” I asked her how she felt and tried to draw her out. I didn’t want her to not have the baby to please me and then regret it. But I was a strong personality and a hard person to argue with.
In our relationship, my thoughts and feelings were the ones that got followed rather than hers. I might have been afraid that if I gave Sandy more of a chance to express herself, she would’ve talked me into it.
I didn’t force her, but in the end, she agreed an abortion was the right move.
Looking back on it, I’m elated I had enough sense to do what I did — what we did. But now that I have more respect for women, I probably would’ve handled things differently. I would’ve given Sandy more of a voice.
Josh Healey, 33, Writer and Creative Organizer, Oakland
When my girlfriend Esther told me her period was 10 days late, I was like, “Oh shit, even my dumb ass knows that means something.”
Needless to say, when her pregnancy test came back positive, I was scared. I was 20, and we were six months into our relationship. The biggest decision we’d ever had to make was, “Which shitty burrito chain are we going to go to?”
I knew this was a woman’s right and that I was supposed to be supportive, strong and sensitive right off the bat, but I was also thinking about my own selfish desires. It was like, “Wow, I literally have skin in the game.”
I viewed our discussions as if we were on the U.N. Security Council and I was a voting member but she was a veto member. I was leaning toward the abortion and thought, I’ll do whatever she wants to do, but I hope she wants to do what I want to do.
Esther also was leaning that way, but she surprised me by talking about how she looked forward to being a mother and had even thought about baby names. That’s when it hit home that this could turn into a child in eight months with a name, a face and fingers and toes.
I always wanted to be a father, too, but I wasn’t thinking about it deeply. Part of me thought, I love this woman, and even though I’m an emotional idiot, I’ll learn how to be a dad. There’s also this male mentality like, “My job is to spread my gene and plant the seed.”
It was obvious that we needed time to process things and think them through properly. We researched clinics and spoke to people in our lives; by our fourth or fifth conversation, we were in agreement that abortion was the best choice.
Until then, I’d always thought of abortion as a women’s issue. But then it became real for me, and I was like, “Dude, this is a fucking men’s issue too.” Because it did change my life. It made me more committed to Esther, who is now my wife and the mother of my child. It made me think of how, especially as a young man, you’re taught not to think about abortion because women deal with the consequences. You’re taught you can wear a condom and everything will be okay. But it’s a deeply personal issue for us men, too.
Rodolfo Parra Jr., 29, United Way Coordinator, Texas
When my girlfriend’s pregnancy test came back positive, I felt extremely afraid. I was 20, and we’d been dating for two-and-a-half years. The relationship, however, wasn’t healthy. I was really insecure and jealous because I thought of myself as an ugly person. We were constantly breaking up; we knew we weren’t good for each other let alone for a child.
Neither of our families were middle class, and I remember fearing that I wouldn’t be able to provide for the kid. I had no dad growing up, and I just kept thinking about how I didn’t want to follow in those same footsteps. There’s so much I wish we would’ve talked about, but I was so worried about money.
At the time, I thought the abortion was a mutual decision, but I wonder if she felt differently and was just too afraid to tell me. I wish we’d had some time away from each other to think about it. We didn’t really get the chance to have our own thoughts.
We broke up about six months later, but the abortion haunted me for a long time. When I was younger, I’d get high and think of the kid I could’ve had. It messed with me horribly — I felt like the biggest piece of shit in the world. That kid would be seven or eight now. What if they were a straight-A student and went on to do something amazing?
Part of me still feels like a coward, but I also wonder if that’s because of society’s emphasis on men as successful providers. I’ve always had low self-esteem and am really hard on myself.
I’ve never talked to anyone about it until now. I’m pro-choice, but I feel completely selfish that I thought more about how I would pay for the abortion than a potential life that could have impacted so many others. Maybe all we had to do was struggle to make it work, but instead, we chose to not even try. I still don’t think I ever deserve to have another kid. I’ll adopt going forward because I feel that I’ve lost my privilege to help create a life.
Charles, 28, Designer and Filmmaker, Halifax
During my last year of university, I’d been casually sleeping with a friend. Neither of us had any expectation of commitment. After a few months, I invited her over for dinner to say I thought we should see each other less, but she stopped me in my tracks with “I have something important to tell you: Everything is fine, but I’m pregnant.” She had an IUD so I was definitely shocked and just said, “Holy shit, what do we do?”
I knew what was going to happen wasn’t really up to me. So it was obviously one of the most powerless moments of my life — by a longshot. And feeling powerless about something that’s very much a part of you makes you feel very alone.
Within the first 30 seconds, she said she wanted to “nip it in the bud.” I was immensely relieved that we were on the same page and that I could throw 100 percent of my support behind her. I can’t fathom how people go through this when they have disagreements.
I tried to be available and listen and give her my thoughts when they were asked for. I wanted to make the rest of her life easy because I knew there was a lot on her mind. I cooked for her, and we watched a lot of movies. We spent most of every day together and continued to be intimate. When something like a pregnancy happens, the ambiguities of a complicated relationship get put on hold because one person needs a lot of support.
If anything, it was much easier to focus on her instead of myself. I had a good idea of what was medically involved in an abortion, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for how I’d feel or how to process that feeling. Watching my half-sister grow up, who was a year older than this baby would’ve been, would sometimes remind me that another reality could’ve played out.
Being a man in this situation is really confusing. You feel guilty for being complicit in terminating a pregnancy, but you also feel immense relief because babies tend to change your plans. Plus, talking about how I was feeling seemed impossible — even though I have parents who are open about sexual education. And so, if I were to offer any advice to myself at the time, it would be to not be afraid to talk about it because the emotions don’t get any less complicated when you keep them to yourself.