Hidden Male Grief

Five years ago, when Michael*, a graduate student at New York University, was 18 years old, he steered his pregnant ex-girlfriend past protesters to a Delaware abortion clinic.

Michael was panicked at the thought of becoming a father, but equally worried about pressuring his ex into an abortion. In the end, she made the decision and he paid the medical bill.

Years later, Michael, along with many men who’ve faced an unplanned pregnancy, feels a lingering weight from the experience but has no socially sanctioned means of talking about his emotions. The sharply divided politics of abortion can make it difficult even for staunchly pro-choice men, like Michael, to express sadness. David*, a student from Washington state, strongly supports a woman’s right to abortion but had feelings of both “relief and regret” after his girlfriend ended a pregnancy.

“These men often deny themselves the experience of grieving,” says Michael Y. Simon, a California-based psychotherapist who counsels men after abortion. He says the emotional toll can manifest itself in low self-esteem, substance abuse, failed relationships and sexual dysfunction. Men tend not to ask for help, he adds, exacerbating the perception that there is no need to provide resources for them. “Men get the message that the best thing they can do in the situation is to withdraw,” says Simon, “forcing deeper or more traumatic feelings to be kept unconscious.”

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Some 1.3 million women have abortions each year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that about 50 percent of them are accompanied to the clinic by a man, according to Leslie Rottenberg, a social worker at Planned Parenthood in New York City. A 1984 study of abortion clinics in 18 states by Arthur Shostak, a sociologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, suggests that some 15 percent of women did not tell their sexual partners about their abortion.

The emotional needs of men are beginning to gain some attention. Miriam Gerace, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, says the response to a trial run for male-targeted counseling services was overwhelming. “We quickly realized that there is a dire need for services of this kind.” In 2002, the center initiated the “Waiting Room Project” in Manhattan, where men watch slide presentations on topics including safe sex and how to be supportive of their partner during an unwanted pregnancy.

Many men have found an outlet online. Web sites such as afterabortion.com, a nonpartisan site that began in 1998, offer message boards where men can share their experience. A man posting as “sadguy” on afterabortion.com wrote, “I did not know where else to turn.”

Years later, Michael says he still thinks about the experience. He feels it “seeps into the subconscious and always stays with you.”

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