When Steve Arterburn arrived at Baylor University in the early 1970s, he was bright-eyed and optimistic, thrilled at the prospect of working hard to get himself a good, Christian education. But all he got that year was a girl pregnant.
At the time, he hadn’t developed the cogent pro-life values he’s honed today as a best-selling author, ministry founder and host of New Life Live, the country’s top Christian radio show. So without giving it too much thought, he “strongly” encouraged his partner to get an abortion, gave her the money to do so and went about his business thinking he’d narrowly avoided a major disaster.
He felt fine about it for three days, he says. Then the guilt kicked in. “Out of what felt like nowhere, I was overcome with shame,” he tells me. “I’d destroyed the life of my own child. That child would have been a person, and that person would have probably gotten married and made other people too. I saw it as me eliminating not just one baby, but an entire family tree. It was absolutely devastating, and I felt like God would never forgive me.”
Worse, he says, he had no one to talk to about it. Opening his mouth would mean he’d have to admit he’d sinned, and besides, no one really brought up stuff like this back then. So he bottled it up, allowing the “silent shame” to tear him apart. However, within a few months, the stress of keeping it in started to show. After developing severe stomach pains, he found out his gut was riddled with more than 80 ulcers, all of which seemed to be conspiring to eat him alive from the inside. He was hospitalized and told he would die if he didn’t find a way to deal with his stress soon. In the coming months, he learned to “accept God’s forgiveness” and was able to move on, but the trauma of what he went through stuck with him.
Years after he recovered, he was reading up on men’s experiences with abortion when he came across an article in Esquire about something called Male Post-Abortion Syndrome (PAS). Though not a clinically recognized diagnosis, male PAS is often described by pro-life organizations like Save One Europe as a common, dangerous PTSD-like condition that some men experience in the wake of a partner’s abortion. According to their explanation, symptoms can include feelings of intense anger, rage, guilt, shame, depression and helplessness, all of which supposedly lead to relationship instability, porn addiction, abusive behavior, sexual dysfunction and an inability to bond with children and women and fulfill the “normal” masculine roles of protector, father and breadwinner. Sometimes, per organizations like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), PAS can even lead to suicide by men wanting to “rejoin their children in heaven.”
Different pro-life websites offer different rationales for why abortion has such disastrous effects on men, all of which seem to be based in an extremely narrow, old-school definition of masculinity. Save One Europe says it’s because abortion “violates a man’s true heart for commitment, protection and provision.” Ramah International blames it on the “emasculation” men feel from their “inability to protect [their] unborn child.” Meanwhile, the USCCB says the pain of male PAS stems from the gender imbalance inherent in abortion decision-making. Thanks to the Supreme Court, they write, a “woman’s right not to procreate trumps a man’s right to procreate, making his involvement in the abortion decision irrelevant.” This qualifies as “unequal protection under the law” and is something that “clearly needs review and revision.”
For Arterburn, that context was still to be discovered. Compelled by the article he’d read in Esquire, he sought out other articles and research that outlined the symptoms of male PAS. Reading them was like “looking in a mirror,” he tells me. He had nearly every symptom they mentioned, and was relieved to learn that what he’d gone through — ulcers and all — seemed to be nothing more than a severe manifestation of a condition brought on by the trauma of abortion.
Though his symptoms had long since abated, he was so moved by the experience of identifying with PAS that he began to talk about it at colleges and on conservative radio shows like the Focus On the Family Broadcast in the hopes he could start the conversation around men and abortion he was never able to have. “It’s always good for us to share what we’re going through,” he explains. “There’s a tremendous amount of help that can come when you stop hiding it like I did.”
What Arterburn didn’t know — and still doesn’t necessarily agree with — is that there is no reliable evidence that shows male post-abortion syndrome actually exists. Instead, as abortion researcher and Director of Gender Studies at Mississippi State University Kimberly Kelly tells me, PAS is nothing more than a fictitious condition invented by pro-life organizations to push their agenda and influence policy. “Post-Abortion Syndrome isn’t a thing,” she says. “Not for men, not for women, not for anyone.”
According to Kelly, it was originally concepted during the Christian crisis pregnancy center (CPC) movement of the 1970s and 1980s as a way to recruit activists by demonstrating that CPCs cared about women and their well-being despite their overt anti-abortion stance. The idea was picked up by pro-life researchers in the late 1980s, who published biased and methodologically flawed studies claiming all women who had abortions suffered from a gender-specific variant of PTSD. Legislators then used these studies to justify passing anti-abortion policies as a way to, as Kelly writes, “protect women from themselves and their own poor decision-making.”
So far, the PAS strategy has been been fairly effective for anti-abortion activists, researchers and policymakers when it comes to bending the law toward their side. In the Supreme Court case Gonzalez v. Carhart, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez cited the PAS-based work of a controversial anti-abortion researcher named David Reardon — whose educational background and research methodology were questionable and extremely biased — to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortion in the U.S.
Most striking was Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion on the case, which admitted that while Gonzalez’s argument was based on unsubstantiated claims and there had been no reliable data presented to support the existence of PAS, it seemed “unexceptionable” to think some women wouldn’t regret their abortions and suffer depression and a loss of self-esteem as a result. Therefore, he argued, partial-birth abortion should remain illegal. PAS-based abortion legislation was also used to uphold South Dakota’s 2005 “suicide advisory” law, which required physicians providing abortion services to notify women that the procedure could place them at an increased risk of suicide and negative psychological harm. According to Kelly, dozens of other cases have successfully used PAS as rational to regulate women’s reproductive rights since then.
Around the early 2000s, anti-abortion activists realized they could expand the scope of their arguments by claiming that male partners of women who aborted also suffered from their own special form of PAS. In doing so, they doubled the number of “victims” of abortion, allowing them to present abortion restrictions as a matter of public health for all. In order to do so, says Kelly, PAS activists relied upon claims that abortion affects all men in a way that’s so specific that it merits its own disease.
According to Ronald Levant, a psychologist, author, masculinity researcher and former president of the American Psychological Association, “There is no evidence that depression, stress and anxiety following a partner’s abortion constitutes any kind of unique psychological syndrome in men.” In fact, Kelly says it’s not even accurate to characterize men’s experience with abortion as universally difficult. While it’s absolutely true that it can be distressing for all involved, peer-reviewed research shows there’s a much wider range of emotional responses men have than psychosis, some of which even skew positive.
“Most men and women report relief as their strongest emotion immediately following abortion, and virtually no men express regret or any significant negative emotions in the long-term,” she explains. “Abortion can absolutely cause complex emotions like anxiety, ambivalence and even loss, but in some cases, it’s also been shown to bring couples closer together. It’s certainly possible that some men could experience grief and regret long-term and this should be taken seriously, but these would be tied to individual characteristics and circumstances, not a specific psychological syndrome affecting large numbers.”
And what of those large numbers? Well, they don’t seem to exist, either. Despite the omnipresence of male PAS on sites like SaveOne and The UnChoice, very few men claim to have it in real life. For example, a search for “male post-abortion syndrome” on Reddit — normally a repository of nuanced diseases, men’s lib and heated discussions about all things abortion — brings up nothing more than a desperate call for sources that I posted on r/malementalhealth myself (which, by the way, no one has responded to yet). The only places I was able to find verified first-person accounts of real men exhibiting symptoms of what they think is male PAS is this case study and Arterburn, who was generous enough to share his story.
Even men who’ve had particularly traumatic experiences with abortion don’t necessarily identify with male PAS. Forty-two year-old college professor Neal (not his real name) tells me his ex-girlfriend had to have an emergency abortion in 2015 when she was 25 weeks because she developed extremely high blood pressure that placed her at a high risk of stroke. Thankfully, they were in California, which is one of several states that allows for abortion after 24 weeks in case of medical emergency, but Neal says the experience still haunts both of them to this day.
“We were so excited to have this baby,” he says. “And at 25 weeks, it really does look like your kid. Having to weigh the risks of keeping the baby versus losing my girlfriend was really scary for both of us, even though we knew there was really only one choice. It felt like a phenomenal, life-altering loss.” Afterwards, he became withdrawn and sullen. He kept picturing what his baby must have looked like, and what it would have grown into had it lived. He had anxiety about sex — he didn’t want to go through all that again — and he was constantly retracing his steps, thinking about what he could have done differently, though it was no fault of his at all.
But, would he characterize these feelings as male abortion PTSD? “Hell no,” he says. “My brother has real PTSD from serving in Iraq. What I felt is not that.”
As Kennedy’s Gonzalez vs. Carhart decision proves, it doesn’t actually matter that next to no one really has male PAS (or female PAS, for that matter). Anti-abortion activists don’t need strong or unbiased data to run with these ideas and affect policies, because they have something more powerful on their side: traditional gender roles, and the pervasive beliefs that go with them. According to Debate.org, 45 percent of Americans believe these roles are important to maintain, and from some of the comments left below the poll, it appears many of them would fight to defend them.
By including men in PAS rhetoric, Levant and Kelly agree that anti-abortion groups can uphold conservative gender ideologies that define women as inherently maternal and call upon men to help control them and their reproductive decisions. This puts men in the driver’s seat in the one area they have no legal or ethical recourse over (while some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws ever made have just been passed in four states, none of them are currently in effect, which means that at least as of now, abortion is still a solely a woman’s decision).
“Claiming that men have an abortion-related disease is a way for them to insert themselves into into a realm they have no decision-making power in,” says Levant. “That’s a blatant form of control. Making abortion about men, when we should be discussing the rights of women, is a classic way to express traditionally masculine norms that say men’s needs should always come first. They should dominate the conversation. They should make the decisions.”
Most importantly, it seems, they should never be emotionally inconvenienced. As Vincent Rue, a psychologist dealing with post-abortion issues among men puts it, “Abortion rewrites the rules of masculinity. Whether or not the male was involved in the abortion decision, his inability to function in a socially prescribed manner leaves him wounded and confused.” Of course, we all know what happens when a man becomes “wounded and confused” — if PAS rhetoric is to be believed — he becomes justifiably abusive and sexually abject before he offs himself.
It’s not hard to see the inherent manipulation woven into that narrative: If women believe men will get a disease if they’re emasculated by their lack of choice, or that they’ll be so sad about losing a child that they’ll kill themselves over it, it’s possible they’ll forgo their own needs in favor of the man’s and choose not to abort. Obviously, says Kelly, that’s the goal.
But where does that leave individuals like Arterburn, for whom control and gender dynamics weren’t necessarily the issue? In his case, he had all the control — too much, even. It was his idea to abort. He put up the money for it. He had no opportunity to feel emasculated or like less of a man during any of it, because he was already upholding gender roles by telling his partner what was best for her and the baby. That, he says, is actually what got him the most as he processed what happened. Without stopping to think about how she’d feel, he’d essentially coerced her into doing something that years later, she told him she might not have done. “No part of me is okay with what I did,” he says. “It still sticks with me to this day.”
So, in a situation like his, couldn’t it be possible that he could have developed a legitimate complex based on genuine regret and sadness over what he’d done?
Well, anything is technically possible, but Levant says it wouldn’t be something akin to PTSD. “I’ve treated many, many trauma patients over the years, and I’ve never seen a case where someone gets PTSD from forcefully suggesting that someone else make an important decision,” he says. “PTSD is something that happens in response to actual or threatened death, serious injury, war or sexual violence, not normal feelings of guilt over family planning, even if they seem abnormally strong or long-lasting.” To be clear, Levant isn’t minimizing the pain and suffering some men do experience after situations like Arterburn’s, but it bears repeating: Male PAS or abortion PTSD is not its own condition. Claiming to have it can help some men put a name and a framework around the intense, destructive feelings they have, but beyond that, it’s just a covertly politicized way to divert attention away from women during a time when they need it the most.
However, that does not, in any way, mean men shouldn’t talk about their experiences with abortion, that their feelings aren’t as valid and pointed as women’s are or that they don’t need their own flavor of support during an abortion. If anything, both Levant and Kelly lament the lack of productive discussions around men and abortion and wish there were more spaces for their feelings to be honored and processed.
“By far the most common finding in scientific studies of men’s experiences with abortion is that men want and need better access to pre-abortion counseling,” says Kelly. “Men report feelings of anxiety and loss of control immediately prior to their partners having abortions (this includes men who support their partner’s decision to have an abortion), and they indicate that more comprehensive counseling for men would be very helpful.”
Essentially then, it’s not just women who need to talk about these things. It’s everybody.