The first time I remember saying the word “abortion” was on a rugby field in 1991. I was late to practice; guys were already halfway through warm-ups. “Sorry,” I joked, “I was taking my girlfriend to get an abortion.” Several teammates burst out laughing.
Red-faced and angry, my coach bellowed: “That’s not funny!” And then to underscore how upset he was, he repeated it: “That’s not funny!”
I felt shock and embarrassment to be called out by my coach. Jaamy Zarnegar was a man I respected; I was deeply ashamed at what I’d said although at the time I couldn’t articulate why. Paradoxically, I also felt a thrill at demonstrating to other men how I could be uncaring and cruel. I knew I had just passed another self-administered test of my masculinity, sadly just as important to me at the progressive college I was attending, Guilford, as it was anywhere else.
I couldn’t (wouldn’t) find the time and space to talk about the jumble of feelings my degrading comment stirred in me. Among my male friends on and off the rugby pitch, we had never had serious conversations about our behavior and attitudes; we certainly had never talked about women’s reproductive choices —it just wasn’t something we did. It wasn’t something we had to do. (We also never talked about our responsibilities when it came to birth control beyond an occasional, “Better use a condom!”)
So we shook off Jaamy’s anger and dove into the ruck and maul of practice. But the fact that my coach had challenged me publicly mattered; I have revisited that moment many times over the past three decades.
Men Stopping Violence Helped Me to Look in the Mirror
Nine years later, in 2000, I began an internship with Men Stopping Violence, founded in 1982 in Atlanta as a social change organization dedicated to engaging men to end violence against women. My work at Men Stopping Violence (MSV) required me to look in the mirror, to get real with myself and other men about consent, coercion, and our choices around sex—and the effects of those choices on women. As an intern I went through MSV’s 24-week men’s education program where, like other men, I had to examine uncomfortable truths: my sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and the specific controlling behaviors I had used—jealousy, sulking, pressure tactics—to get sex. I had to ask myself difficult questions like, “What unexamined beliefs did I hold about women? Where did I learn those beliefs? How did they inform my actions, and how were women affected? For example, how had my recklessness around birth control impacted my partners and their reproductive decisions?” Once I fully acknowledged that I had pressured women and had abdicated my responsibilities around birth control, I could no longer sit on the sidelines and pretend abortion had nothing to do with me. Despite these stirrings of awareness, I still wasn’t ready to leave the sidelines.
Almost Ready to Act
In 2012, around the time that the Georgia legislature reduced the amount of time for women to obtain an abortion, I was sitting with a colleague at Men Stopping Violence (MSV), Dick Bathrick, one of MSV’s cofounders. (He had been captain of the rugby team at Dartmouth College decades earlier.) I’d known Dick for more than 10 years and often turned to him for honest reaction. I knew there was a connection between efforts to limit access to abortion and violence against women, and I asked Dick to help me connect the dots.
Dick reminded me that at MSV we were often working with men who used coercive control to influence women’s reproductive decisions, including pressuring and often forcing a woman to have sex, to not use a condom, and, if a pregnancy occurred, to force the woman to remain pregnant or intimidate them into terminating the pregnancy. He helped me to see that criminalizing or banning abortion is another iteration of coercion, another expression of men controlling women’s bodies and lives, regardless of state law.
While it may be difficult for many women to hear, I needed a conversation with a man to finally, earnestly engage in women’s struggle for reproductive justice. Dick wasn’t saying anything that thousands of women across Georgia hadn’t been saying emphatically for years. Still, I needed our conversation to realize that my inaction was, considering what’s at stake, unacceptable to me.
Listening to Women
After that conversation, I began making conscious choices to put myself in positions where I could listen directly to women and female-identified leaders. I went to Feminist Women’s Health Center trainings where I learned about the insulting, medically inaccurate (and unnecessary) steps a woman must go through before she can have an abortion.
I attended the screening of Melissa Alexander’s documentary film Confessional, featuring victims of sexual violence telling their stories, part of a group exhibition in Atlanta, “If I Told You…” where female-identified artists addressed harassment, assault, violence, and the treatment of the female body. I sat rapt listening to testimony from a woman who was raped and had an abortion. She described how her rapist—a man in her community—was reportedly happy when he found out she was pregnant. Her agency and free will were as insignificant then as the day he raped her.
At a training conducted by SisterSong, the Atlanta-based national activist organization dedicated to reproductive justice for women of color, I was moved by the clarity of their definition of reproductive justice: “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
I sometimes felt uneasy going into these spaces. But I had to confront the truth: staying in my comfort zone meant remaining willfully inactive around a human rights issue that I now knew I had an obligation to address.
As I learned more, I stepped more fully into this aspect of the work of advancing gender equality. I began by making monetary donations to organizations fighting for reproductive justice. Then I joined other men at rallies. Today I am part of an emerging men’s coalition for abortion access. These are of course modest contributions compared to what the women who fight for reproductive justice every day do on behalf of women’s autonomy and those whose bodies are in jeopardy.
Coming Full Circle
Recently I had dinner with my college rugby coach from three decades ago. When I told him that I was writing an article that included him, he seemed unperturbed. But when I told him that the topic was abortion, I saw his face cloud and he looked down at his plate. I reminded him of that afternoon on the pitch: my callous “joke,” my teammates’ laughter, and his swift, unambiguous condemnation.
What he said next echoed what my colleague and mentor Dick had said years earlier: Shortly before my “joke,” Jaamy told me, he had accompanied a friend to get an abortion after the man who had gotten her pregnant refused to. He described the experience as hell for her. It was through women’s experiences that he’d arrived at his own position: women deserve the right to make their own choices about reproduction. Full stop.
Here it was nearly 30 years later and this was the first deeply honest conversation I had with Jaamy. I felt closer to him than ever. I also felt a touch of regret. I might have been able to learn from him all those years ago about listening to women, but I didn’t believe then there was space for us to talk. Having had that conversation, I felt a deep sense of relief wash over me. I was finally off the sidelines. Soon afterward I emailed this article to three of my college teammates, along with a note. It simply said, “Let’s connect.”
Greg Loughlin is director of community engagement at Men Stopping Violence (www.menstoppingviolence. org). Previously executive director of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, he can be reached at email@example.com.