Back in 1975, before Fr Stephen Imbarrato became a Catholic priest and pro-life activist, he got his girlfriend pregnant and was, in his own words, “complicit” in her abortion. Decades later when he met her to apologise, he found out she had been carrying twins.
“I had said I supported her decision either way, though I gave all the reasons why it wasn’t a good time to have a baby,” says
Fr Imbarrato added that he believes his girlfriend would have continued the pregnancy if he had said that was what he wanted.
His experience is an arresting example of how men can be both involved in and affected by abortion, though his story is the sort you rarely hear. But now such men are beginning to speak out more about their experiences.
“Men had bought into how they have no say in abortion and that if they speak out, they are against women,” says Theresa Bonopartis, director of Lumina, an organisation that counsels post-abortive men and women. “It’s changing now. Men are fed up.”
She puts this shift down to a combination of improved ultrasound technology revealing in starker detail what is occurring in the womb, and the “repercussions of 45 years of abortion”.
Fr Imbarrato says men are usually involved in an abortion in one of four ways, calling his involvement the “Adam scenario”, alluding to when “Adam didn’t stand up for Eve and then blamed her afterwards.” The other three are when a man forces a woman to have an abortion against her will, a man finds out about the abortion for the first time after the fact, or the abortion goes ahead against his wishes.
Those running counselling groups for men affected by abortion say that, even if there is initial relief, many are left traumatised later.
“I suffered a lifetime of PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder because of this,” says Charles Brian, 56. Two of his girlfriends had abortions before he had finished college. “It’s a constant thought process that you go through, hitting your heart and mind. You feel pain, then your mind tries to fix it by saying, ‘If I did this, it must have been for a good reason.’ But it’s not enough, and [the pain] comes back day in and out.”
Those like Brian say they discuss their experiences in the hope that it will help other men dealing with post-abortive trauma, as well as encourage men to think differently when confronted by an unexpected pregnancy. At the same time, many of those speaking out credit their faith as being what saved them.
“I wasn’t going to jump off a bridge, but I probably would have drunk myself to death,” says Karl Locker, a 65-year-old who was in his thirties when he got a woman pregnant. She insisted on having an abortion, resulting in him driving her to the clinic and paying for it. “If I didn’t know God’s way, I know I would be dead now,” he reflects.
The role of religion in the abortion debate is particularly contentious in the US, with many abortion supporters criticising the allegedly un-Christian behaviour of some anti-abortion protesters outside clinics. Even those of faith within the post-abortive counselling network acknowledge that bringing up God’s love for the unborn child can undercut arguments taking place in a more secular realm.
“I am not going to tell people how they should be feeling,” says Charles Raymond, a 61-year-old Catholic anti-abortion activist, about discussing his teenage experience of abortion on Facebook with men who say they are happy their partners got abortions. “I just hope to plant a seed. It affected me for decades. But if you can accept the truth of what happened, there is healing and hope which can let you forgive yourself.”
Some argue that men left traumatised by an abortion are outliers, saying that just as there is research indicating that the majority of women don’t regret their abortions – at least in the first few years and based on what women say (which could be different to what they truly feel) – the same applies to the majority of post-abortive men.
Research into men’s reactions to the abortion of a potential child is scant. What data there is comes from post-abortive support groups, making it difficult to make reliable statistical observations. But the accounts include commonalities such as anger, guilt, shame and deep sadness on anniversary dates. They lend credence to the argument that after an abortion great moral and spiritual wounds can become visible.
Such sorrows are not limited to the man and woman involved: any abortion can touch would-be siblings, aunts and uncles and grandparents.
“It’s difficult for all people,” says Bonopartis, who remembers running a retreat with nine people who each lost a sibling through abortion, and had to deal with existential anxieties as a result. “We haven’t even touched that as a society.”
By some estimates, about one in four American women will have had an abortion by the age of 45, meaning that a significant proportion of the male population, too, will have been directly affected by an abortion.
“With a man having no rights in this, what sort of message has that sent out to society about how we value the role of the father?” says Kevin Burke, a social worker and co-founder of Rachel’s Vineyard, which runs weekend retreats for women and men enduring post-abortion trauma.
“I think it’s important to look at how this message may be contributing – especially in minority communities with higher rates of abortion, abuse and other trauma – to the high numbers of single mothers, crime and high male incarceration rates in impoverished neighbourhoods.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who divides his time between the US and UK, as well as further afield, writing for various international media. Twitter: @jrfjeffrey