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The Silent, Post-Abortion Grief of Men

Politics aside, both women and men may have a need to grieve.

Key points

  • Our convictions may obscure an awareness of what others experience.
  • Post-abortion grief is often silently held as a result of contradictory emotions.
  • For some men, intense grief is experienced regarding the loss of the child and fatherhood many years post-abortion.
  • Emotions that create post-abortion grief involve constructed memory, where a virtual or fantasized child is mourned.

Beliefs and values, infused with emotion and fueled by memories, create scaffolds in our lives. Yet our convictions may obscure awareness of what others experience, in some circumstances. One of these involves the various ways men emotionally respond to the termination of a partner’s pregnancy. Pro-choice beliefs may overshadow empathic responses regarding the potential impact of a woman’s abortion on a male partner, let alone on women themselves. Moreover, post-abortion grief is often silently held as a result of contradictory emotions.

Male partners of women who have an induced abortion may hold positive or negative views of the experience (Coyle & Rue, 2015; Kero, et al., 1999). In a study of men who anticipated a partner’s abortion, more than half of the 75 male participants expressed conflicting feelings (Kero, et al., 1999).

A partner’s abortion results in relief for most men, reflecting the termination of a continuously activated negative emotion, such as distress, in response to the pregnancy (Kero, Lalos, & Wulff, 2010).

Even so, most men also find the experience difficult, and it may later leave them with lingering and disturbing thoughts (Coyle & Rue, 2015b). Common experiences among men whose partners have an induced abortion include ambivalence, loss, grief, guilt, self-reproach, a feeling of responsibility, depression, anger, sexual dysfunction, depression, and posttraumatic stress response (Coyle & Rue, 2010, 2014, 2015b; Kero & Lalos, 2000; Mattinson,1985). Grief, however, is not the same as trauma—not the same mechanisms, not the same symptoms, and not as profoundly disruptive to others who are around the affected individual—though both posttraumatic stress responses and grief can challenge our theological, philosophical, and existential assumptions (W. McCown, personal communication, September 30, 2022).

Qualitative research has illustrated that experience intense grief over the loss of a child and fatherhood, even after many years post-abortion, as researchers Coyle & Rue (2015a) illustrated in their study, which cited comments such as:

I wish I could know more about the baby. I often imagine what he/she would look like now. (Thirteen years post-abortion).

I would have made an excellent father, and I feel now at my age (49) my chance has probably gone. And this makes me sad. (Nine years post-abortion).

I can’t describe the emptiness of the fatherhood lost. The loss of honor and self-respect in skirting my responsibility to be a father, not to mention the taking of my own child’s life, is a very heavy burden indeed. (Twenty-eight years post-abortion).

The absolute worst thing I have ever done. Words can’t describe the pain and overwhelming guilt that is always with me. I have no one to blame but myself. (Twenty-six years post-abortion) (Coyle & Rue 2015a, p. 141).

Imagination and the imagery it creates are part of being human, and they can lead us to experience grief. What we imagine may become a reality in memory, and we may mourn the imagined future of a child who was never born. The human capacity to imagine—to create images stored in memory as reality—may later haunt us as we consider lost opportunities, or what could have been.

Quietly working for us and keeping its own calendar, our implicit memory tracks essential dates and places, including anniversaries and markers of loss. People are often unaware of the markers that may trigger emotional responses, such as the expected age of a child that was aborted as a fetus. Instead, a person may have a day or week when, for no apparent reason, their mood seems heavy. When activated, an implicit memory registers as a feeling, image, or flashback within us, seemingly from out of nowhere. Because implicit memories are unconscious, they may lead us to wonder, “Why am I thinking about that right now?”

Emotion and memory interface with the belief systems within the culture and environment in which we live. Political or religious values and beliefs often determine the cognitive responses of men to abortion and may serve to rationalize it. Nonetheless, male partners of women who have an induced abortion may experience disenfranchised grief; namely that they do not have a right to grieve (Doka, 2002). For example, Andrew, who had always hoped to raise a child, experienced grief when his ex-partner confessed, many years later, that she had an abortion during their relationship.

I believe women should have the right to choose, but at the same time, both women and men may also have a need to grieve.

[Excerpted in part from Grief Isn't Something to Get Over: Finding a Home for Memories and Emotions After Losing a Loved One.]

References

Cougle, J. R., Reardon, D. C., & Coleman, P. K. (2003). Depression associated with abortion and childbirth: a long-term analysis of the NLSY cohort. Medical science monitor: International medical journal of experimental and clinical research, 9(4), CR105–CR112.

Coyle, C. T. & Rue, V. M. (2010). Men’s experience of elective abortion: A mixed methods study of loss. Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 45, 4-31.

Coyle, C. and Rue, V. (2015a). A thematic analysis of men’s experience with a partner’s elective abortion. Counseling and Values, 60, 138-150. doi:10.1002/cvj.12010

Coyle, C. and Rue, V. (2015b). Men’s perceptions concerning disclosure of a partner’s abortion: Implications for counseling. The European Journal of Counseling Psychology, 3(2), 159–173, doi:10.5964/ejcop.v3i2.54

Doka, K. J. (2002). Disenfranchised grief: New directions, challenges, and strategies for practice. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Kero, A., & Lalos, A. (2000). Ambivalence – A logical response to legal abortion: A prospective study among women and men. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 21(2), 81-91. doi:10.3109/01674820009075613


Kero, A., Lalos, A., Högberg, U., & Jacobsson, L. (1999). The male partner involved in legal abortion. Human reproduction (Oxford, England), 14(10), 2669–2675. https://doi.org/10.1093/humrep/14.10.2669

Kero, A., Lalos, A., & Wulff, M. (2010). Home abortion: Experiences of male involvement. European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care, 15, 264–270.


Mattinson J. (1985). The effects of abortion on a marriage. Ciba Foundation symposium, 115, 165–177. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470720967.ch13

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