By Rob Okun
According to the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of women and 57 percent of men say abortion should be legal in “all or most cases.” But “checking a box on a questionnaire doesn’t tell us much, because polls don’t measure intensity,” noted Katha Pollitt in The Nation recently. “There is no box for “Sure, babe, whatever” or for “Yes! Abortion rights is the hill I would die on.”
When it comes to speaking up for women’s reproductive health and voices, pro-choice men’s voices have been more or less on mute. It’s a tricky conversation but it shouldn’t be. While not everyone believes men should have a seat at the reproductive rights table, would excluding men really be in women’s best interests? In their Girls’ Globe article, “What do men have to do with women’s reproductive rights?”, Gary Barker of Promundo, an international NGO engaging men and boys in promoting gender equality, and Serra Sippel of Change, a 25 year-old center for health and gender equity, argue that it would be a disservice to women to exclude men from sexual and reproductive rights conversations because it “…keeps the burden for contraception on women. It halts efforts that encourage men to support the reproductive choices of their female partners, and perpetuates a culture in which no man is perceived to be, or engaged to be, an ally in ensuring reproductive rights of all people.”
For many men who believe in gender equality, myself included, there’s been little of a sustained, consistent men’s prochoice effort. We heard the maxim, “women’s bodies; women’s choices” and nodded. Consequently, many of us backed off from actively working to protect Roe v. Wade, believing we could always re-engage if circumstances became dire—say if Roe was being threatened, right? After all we reasoned, Roe’s been settled law since 1973. Well, it is now more than unsettled—it is unraveling. In the face of vicious anti-choice laws sweeping through southern and mid-western states, men cannot afford to stay silent.
Before the 2006 mid-term elections I was among hundreds of volunteers who went door to door across South Dakota canvassing to overturn what was then the most restrictive abortion ban in the nation. For weeks, prochoice legions crisscrossed the state. I stood on residents’ doorsteps on leafy streets in small Dakota towns explaining why I’d come all the way from Massachusetts. “I have a son, 18, and three daughters all in their twenties,” I’d begin. “Imagine if even one parent in South Dakota had a daughter who’d been raped and became pregnant. Must that family follow a state law that forbade the young woman from aborting the rapist’s child? That compelled her to bear his baby?” Often enough my comments struck a nerve. We won that battle, 55 to 45 percent and South Dakota’s law was overturned by the will of the people. Nevertheless, vigorous efforts to restrict a woman’s right to choose continue unabated to this day all across South Dakota.
I can come up with a half-dozen reasons why I didn’t maintain as active an involvement in the reproductive rights movement as I might have. None hold water. It’s painful to admit that I have fallen short, missed the mark—that I have not been a better ally to women in the struggle to maintain their reproductive rights. After all, as a man who believes in gender equality, I have always been able to enjoy and manage my own body well aware that the same is not true for women. I see now I cannot remain silent. How can I ask other men to speak out for women’s reproductive health and rights if I‘m not willing to do so? Men need to encourage other men to step up.
Hopefully Father’s Day 2019 will jumpstart some important conversations among men and between men and women. More than a new grill or tickets to the game—and certainly beyond the demeaning dad stereotypes that get aired every June—there are practical ways men can stand with women at this perilous time. Whether you’re a father, stepdad, father figure, brother, uncle, nephew, coach or mentor, we need you, not just on Father’s Day but every day.
Here are some actions men—not just fathers—can take:
– Volunteer at a clinic, including escorting patients inside
– For fathers: in lieu of a gift ask your family to make a donation to a local clinic, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, or all three.
– Urge your faith community’s leader to deliver a sermon supporting a women’s right to choose (or be the guest speaker yourself)
– Write a letter to the editor stating your unequivocal support for women’s reproductive rights
– Invite a group of men over to talk about the threat women face and why men need to break their silence
– Urge researchers to accelerate work on developing male birth control methods
– If you have a son old enough, talk with him about respecting women’s autonomy
– Let your daughter know you unequivocally support her right to control her body
– Alert anti-choice legislators that you won’t just vote to unseat them, you’ll work to elect pro-choice candidates
Katha Pollitt has other suggestions, beginning with noting the economic advantage most men have: “That dollar you earn compared with the average woman’s 80 cents? Put it to work by donating today to an abortion fund in one of the abortion-ban states,” she suggests. Among possible recipients could be Missouri’s Gateway Women’s Access Fund which helps people in a state with more than six million people but only one clinic—and where the latest super-restrictive “heartbeat bill” was recently passed. (To support the Missouri fund, along with many others, go to abortionfunds.org).
Women are facing a full-blown emergency. The clock is ticking; a test case to overturn Roe v. Wade could soon be before the Supreme Court. With the flames of intolerance rapidly approaching our sisters’ windows, men must join the bucket brigade to put out the fire. Now.
MEN & ABORTION RIGHTS: “There is No Neutrality Where There is Oppression“
Among the scores of profeminist, antiviolence men’s organizations Voice Male magazine has written about and partnered with over the past three decades, are committed colleagues who champion gender equality, working both in North America and around the world. Their overarching goal of transforming masculinity takes many forms, including (but not limited to) advocating to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault; educating young men about respectful relationships; actively involving fathers in caregiving; consulting with NGOs around the world on projects to advance gender equality; and training early childhood educators on strategies for raising healthy boys. Their projects are representative but by no means exhaustive among efforts aimed at advancing a new expression of manhood, a new vision of masculinities. Recently six colleagues who have been engaged in profeminist men’s work for decades shared with me some of their thoughts about men’s role in supporting women’s reproductive rights. The edited excerpts below range from the political to the personal.
“ALTHOUGH WE ARE MAKING PROGRESS in helping men and boys understand their role in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the vast majority of men, including many working to engage men and boys, are still unsure, largely silent on the question of a woman’s access to abortion and reproductive rights. Could abortion still be viewed by most men as a “woman’s issue?” We were able to break the barrier when it came to gender-based violence and gender equality, so why are we stuck on abortion? Removing access to safe abortion is a form of gender-based violence. Controlling a woman’s reproductive choices—including access to abortion—is a form of individual and state-sponsored control over a woman’s body. If men are speaking out against all other forms of violence against women, then we should speak out against this form of violence, too. Men and boys need to join women advocates. We owe it to the women’s movement, and we owe it to ourselves.”
—Humberto Carolo,executive director, White Ribbon, board co-chair, MenEngage Alliance
“POLITICAL ANALYSTS SAY THAT PRO-CHOICE WOMEN, outraged by the abortion ban legislation sweeping through state legislatures, will be an important political force in 2020, perhaps more than in any single previous presidential election. The idea that threats to women’s reproductive freedom are also an issue for men is only mentioned—if at all—as an afterthought. This has to change. Liberal and progressive men need to hear loud and clear that their support for women’s right to comprehensive health care services—which includes access to safe, legal abortion—needs to be an absolute first-order priority, because without it there is no gender equality. And without gender equality, there is no real democracy.”
—Jackson Katz, cofounder, Mentors in Violence Prevention and author of The Macho Paradox
“IN THE MID-1960s MY MOTHER HAD AN ABORTION. I was 12 years old and didn’t know that it happened until decades later. Because abortion was illegal in the United States, my mom and dad had to sneak around like criminals. They ended up in Puerto Rico where abortion was also illegal, but more common. Luckily they found a safe and compassionate doctor. My dad was by my mom’s side throughout the process,supporting her decision. The systematic erosion of women’s reproductive rights happening now should be ringing alarm bells for men around the country. Control of our own bodies is the most basic human right. Erosion of this right moves us steadily into a world where we are no longer free to make our own choices. Will we speak out on behalf of mothers, sisters, wives and lovers? Will we stand up on behalf of all of our freedom?”
—Steven Botkin, coordinating committee, North America MenEngage
“MEN WHO SUPPORT GENDER EQUALITY MUST JOIN with women and people of all genders in supporting women’s reproductive right to choose. Men also need to take their share of responsibility for birth control, as many unplanned pregnancies are the product of sexual abuse, reproductive coercion or mere irresponsibility on the part of men. If as a society, we want to reduce the number of abortions, men have to do their part.”
—Juan Carlos Areán, director, children and youth program Futures Without Violence
“MEN’S PARTICIPATION IN REPRODUCTION IS MINIMAL. Minutes of pleasure; our desire fulfilled. Then what? If, despite precautions, the woman accidentally becomes pregnant, what should men do? It’s simple: assist her in whatever way she decides. Support her right to choose. It’s her life; not ours. A growing number of state governments are insistingthey can determine what she does with her body and her life. What should men do? Basking in our male privilege, remaining quiet in the face of immoral impositions upon women’s basic human rights is unacceptable. There is no neutrality when there is oppression. Men must speak out publicly. Join women in support of their right to decide—for themselves—what they will do if they become pregnant. Do not sit quietly by. Women’s reproductive rights are not just a woman’s issue; they are an issue of justice and democratic freedom.”
—Chuck Derry, cofounder Gender Violence Institute
“WHEN I WAS STILL A TEENAGER I WAS HAVING UNPROTECTED SEX with my girlfriend. I was ignorant and irresponsible; I assumed she was taking measures to avoid a pregnancy Why? My reasoning was shallow. I thought, well, she’s the woman, and she’s had more experience in these matters since she was mother to a four year-old. When she told me she was pregnant, I freaked out. I was about to start my first year of college. I “convinced” her to abort the pregnancy. I played the victim; guilt-tripping her, saying something like, “How could you this to me when I’m just starting college?” I acted as if I was not co-responsible for the pregnancy. Feeling alone, she got the abortion. I was not even present. My “excuse?” She was living in another city and did not let me know where and when it would occur. All these decades later, the question remains: When women face an unplanned pregnancy and all the complex decision-making it requires, where are the men? FIVE YEARS LATER, AFTER I HAD BEEN EXPOSED TO FEMINISM, I became active in the profeminist men’s movement in my native Nicaragua. That was in the late eighties and nineties. Then about 20 years ago, our Managua-based profeminist men’s collective, Grupo de Hombres contra la Violencia, drafted a statement about men’s responsibility regarding abortion.
Here is an excerpt:
“As brothers, parents, boyfriends, husbands, and friends of women who at some time have needed or may need a therapeutic abortion to safeguard their life and health, we reject the claim of criminalizing therapeutic abortion… Men have no right to demand that women put their lives at risk… It is the right of women to put their own health and well-being first. If therapeutic abortion is penalized, then men should also be imprisoned. Men are the cause of many abortions, particularly when we behave in the following ways:
- Pressure or force women to have sex
- Refuse to use condoms or other male contraception
- Prevent a partner from using her preferred contraceptive method
- Inflict physical, sexual or emotional violence on a partner
- Deny responsibility for her pregnancy
- Fail to comply with legal and moral obligation to support our children
- Strong-arm and/or threaten our partner to abort
Abortion is a very complex, delicate issue. But what is clear is women are the ones who experience pregnancy and abortion. Women must always have the last word. — —Oswaldo Montoya, Networks associate, MenEngage Alliance; cofounder, Grupo de Hombres contra la Violencia, Managua
A version of his article first appeared in Women’s eNews.