Keenan: Whether men should have a say in abortion or not, there are emotional consequences to the decision

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The bombastic leak of the draft U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade sent shockwaves across America. While it seems Canadian judges and politicians have little appetite to reopen the abortion debate, people are certainly talking about abortion again.

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One thing that is rarely discussed is the effect of abortion on the father-to-be. A 2007 review article in the Internet Journal of Mental Health by Catherine T. Coyle, RN, Ph.D. found that “relatively few studies have addressed the psychological impact of abortion on men.” The article points out that while men have few or no legal rights in the abortion decision, they do have a voice in other areas, such as the use of frozen embryos and adoption decisions. There is also what Coyle calls “the inequality between men’s lack of legal power over termination of pregnancy and their responsibility for alimony.”

There have been attempts by men to block a partner’s planned abortion. In 2002, a Pennsylvania man named John Stachokus received an injunction preventing his partner from having an abortion. However, the judge suspended the injunction after a week. In a 1989 case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Jean-Guy Tremblay, who was trying to stop his ex-lover from having an abortion. Allowing protracted legal battles over a proposed abortion is clearly a bad idea, as the decision will effectively be made over time.

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Some researchers claim to have identified a “post-abortion syndrome” in some women. It’s basically a form of PTSD involving depression, guilt, sadness, regret, or denial. This is not a recognized psychiatric condition in women and is even more controversial in men. However, there is no doubt that some men face angst around the entire abortion process.

Coyle’s review found 28 relevant studies that “deal specifically with the effects on male partners of women who undergo elective abortion.” One reported that 82 percent of men in this situation experienced some depression. Another showed that 72% of men surveyed disagreed with the statement “abortion is easy for men”. In that same study, 40% of men reported thinking about the “child they could have been”. Other negative effects involved feelings of helplessness and relationship and sexual problems.

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This research needs to be considered in the context of the alternative – not having an abortion and becoming a parent. This can be highly problematic, especially if the couple is still in their teens. A large study of young men in Texas found that those who did not face the problem of teen pregnancy during their teens were the least distressed, which is quite predictable. However, the researchers were surprised to find that “men whose girlfriends had abortions were more distressed than men who became fathers.”

While male reactions to miscarriage vary widely and can sometimes be as simple as a sense of relief, some men experience what researchers Speckhard and Rue described as “complicated grief.” Writing in a journal of pediatric medicine, they note that “men who have been involved in an abortion often struggle with their internal self-concept of masculinity, feeling they have failed to protect and nurture. These feelings of failure and guilt are often pervasive in many areas of marital and family relationships.”

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In a recent study, Coyle wrote that “the persistence of the men’s grief was particularly striking, with many of the men sharing the still raw pain of the miscarriage experience decades after it occurred.” She then suggests that “some men may need professional help to resolve their pain.” The Texas study by Mary Buchanan and Cynthia Robbins also argued that “programs to assist pregnant teens, abortion counseling, in particular, should include the male partner.”

The masculine side of abortion is starting to appear on the public’s radar. A notable article in, of all places, Glamor magazine is called “12 Men Share Their Miscarriage Stories”. Author Rebecca Nelson first notes that the majority of lawmakers pushing for US laws such as the “fetal heartbeat bill” are male. She also points out that “men are an active presence in the anti-abortion field”.

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One of his stories that stands out is about 81-year-old Richard. “We had three children in 22 months,” he writes, and when his wife’s IUD failed, she decided to have an abortion in 1970. That was before Roe v. Wade, so she had to “go through the farce and degradation of going to a psychiatrist to get authorization for a therapeutic abortion.” He concludes that “It was a positive decision. It was a considered decision. It was carefully thought out. This is what is best for our family decision.”

There’s no way to fully predict how things might change if the Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe v. Wade. A state-by-state legal patchwork may emerge, and there may be implications for Canadians. Let’s just hope that the effects on the male psyche get the consideration they deserve.

Dr. Tom Keenan is an award-winning journalist, public speaker, professor at the University of Calgary School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape, and author of the best-selling book, Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy.

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