Opinion | How Abortion Benefits Men

Matt Lavallee was in college when he learned his girlfriend was pregnant. “The news scared me,” he said, acknowledging that an unintended pregnancy was an even more daunting prospect for his girlfriend. “But there was no question that abortion was the best option for us.”

Now in his 40s, he shares this abortion story whenever he can, including on social media. If his girlfriend had been unable to obtain that abortion, he believes, both of their lives would have been drastically affected. At the time, neither of them had stable jobs or housing, and finding the $400 for the abortion was a struggle.

“It’s easy for men to see this as someone else’s problem, but it’s not,” said Mr. Lavallee. “Without the right to abortion, all of our lives would be much worse. I am living proof.”

We don’t often hear abortion stories from cisgender men like Mr. Lavallee, even though they are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the world’s unplanned pregnancies, and so often benefit when an abortion occurs. The much more familiar pattern when efforts are made to curtail abortion is for a slew of mostly women to share their abortion stories.

Reproductive health science has likewise disproportionately focused on the people who have abortions. Other researchers and I have devoted our careers to examining not only who gets abortions but also what the experience is like, what barriers must be overcome and how having an abortion or being denied one alters a person’s life trajectory. This research has found that access to abortion is associated with improved physical and mental health and is correlated to higher educational and financial attainment in the long run for both women and their children.

Yet amid all this abortion research, some critical questions remain: What’s the effect on men when they co-conceive and then the pregnancy ends in abortion? And who even are these men?

The data on who gets an abortion is extensive. We know that about one in four U.S. women will have an abortion and that about 60 percent are in their 20s, about 75 percent are low income, about 62 percent are religious and around more than half are already parents.

By contrast, there’s scant data on how cis men benefit from abortions, let alone demographic data that characterizes this population. This is partly because of methodology concerns: A man might not necessarily know he helped cause an abortion. Moreover, amid continual attacks on abortion rights, the urgency among researchers has logically been to demonstrate the benefits of abortion access for those who can become pregnant.

Despite this gap in the literature, the data we do have on male abortion beneficiaries indicates that the benefits extend well beyond the person having the abortion. For instance, one study found that among men involved in a pregnancy before the age of 20, those whose partner had an abortion were more likely to have graduated from college compared with those whose partner gave birth.

Given the strong connection between education and income level, it’s plausible that male abortion beneficiaries experience increased income benefits over their lifetime as well, though there isn’t yet data to support this. So far, no such large quantitative study has been conducted on the benefits of abortion for men above the age of 20.

One of the few social scientists who has conducted research on adult men involved in abortions is Jennifer Reich, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver. “Everybody benefits when individuals can control their own reproduction, but the benefit can be invisible for cis men, since they don’t absorb the risks of pregnancy and it’s not written on their bodies,” said Dr. Reich.

In interviews she conducted for a 2008 study, men said abortion made it possible for them to continue their education or employment goals and to “evaluate whether this was the relationship they most wanted to have a lifelong connection to.” Dr. Reich also found that the 20 men in her sample had been involved in 30 abortions, which could suggest that a smaller number of men are involved in a larger proportion of abortions, further supporting the need to understand men’s role.

Dr. Brian T. Nguyen, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Southern California, has established the EMERGE lab to begin to fill the gaps in what’s known about men’s role in reproductive health care. His team has estimated that approximately one in five men has been involved in an abortion, which is likely an underestimate, as some men might misreport because of stigma or because they are unaware of an abortion. “Men can and should be involved in sexual and reproductive health care, and we’ll do this work until it becomes very clear that this is everyone’s issue,” he said.

In a forthcoming paper that draws on a survey data from over 200 men who have been involved in an abortion, Dr. Nguyen and his colleagues found that approximately half of the men surveyed said they desired the abortion so they could focus on the children they already had, which mirrors motivations reported by women who choose abortion that I’ve found in my research as well.

Still, such studies account for a tiny fraction of the existing research on abortion. The lack of focus on men’s role in abortion and how it affects them reflects a broader issue in the way society considers reproductive health.

“We spend so little time thinking about how men’s reproductive health matters and what men’s experiences of reproduction are,” said Rene Almeling, a professor of sociology at Yale.

Dr. Almeling has found that society’s vision of a man’s role in reproduction has come to be limited to “having sex and providing sperm.”

This dearth in knowledge reinforces ideas about reproductive health as an issue for women alone, which results in their shouldering all reproductive responsibility. In the case of abortion specifically, the lack of knowledge and cultural attention obfuscates the benefit that abortion access has for the partners of pregnant people as well.

According to Dr. Nguyen, the lack of focus on men’s involvement in reproductive health care may lead men to tune out the battle for abortion rights or even become opposed to them because they feel unheard or unwelcome in the conversation.

It’s easy to imagine the benefit of shifting some of the focus onto men’s role in abortion. However, there’s also an inherent tension around the question of what role men should have in abortion decisions. While the data we do have suggests that all parties benefit from having access to abortion, the pregnant partner solely carries the burden of the physical dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, which in the United States is 14 times as deadly as abortion and is particularly dangerous for Black women. “It is the person whose body can be or is pregnant who should be making any and all decisions,” said Dr. Almeling.

At the same time, shedding more light on the invisible benefits of abortion for men could be a powerful opportunity to combat stigma and bring more people into the fight for reproductive rights. After all, women have been telling their abortion stories for years, and Roe is still expected to fall.

Andréa Becker (@andreavbecker) is a medical sociologist, researcher and writer at the University of California, San Francisco, Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health.

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