The voices of men denied fatherhood by abortion are conspicuously lacking in the public debate over abortion.
Plenty of men have spoken up for sure. But the majority have tended to be either male legislators pushing new laws to restrict abortion procedures or men standing outside abortion clinics with megaphones lambasting women as “baby killers” and “going to hell.”
Neither tends to engender much good press, drawing the ire of pro-choice activists for trying to legislate women’s bodies and fueling the criticism that the patriarchy just can’t let go.
But if you speak to men whose babies have been aborted, their stance doesn’t seem motivated by a desire for control or a vested interest in some sinister patriarchal conglomerate. It’s driven by unadulterated grief.
“I was surprised but excited, and despite all the challenges we faced, I told her: we can do this,” says Theo Purington, who, in 2006, as a 21-year-old, got his girlfriend pregnant. She insisted on an abortion despite his offering every possible alternative, including him taking full custody of the child.
“It was the most painful experience I have ever been through,” Purington says. “My relationship ended with the woman that I thought I was going to marry, and I lost my first child. I didn’t want to go on; I was in too much pain. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I had nightmares of my child being aborted.”
Purington says a day hasn’t gone by over the last 13 years when he hasn’t thought about the abortion. I spoke to another man, now 65, who, while choking back tears, said he’s thought about the abortion a woman had against his will every day for the last 32 years.
Those who support abortion services counter that such accounts are outliers, that the vast majority of men whose partners had abortions do not regret them. They note that often couples come in to the clinic together, the decision having been made jointly.
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But those working within the post-abortive counseling network point out that ruptures often manifest further down the line.
“However you understand it morally and spiritually, there is a sense of a death having occurred,” says Kevin Burke, a social worker and co-founder of Rachel’s Vineyard, which runs weekend retreats for post-abortive men and women. The fallout can be heightened if the man has previously experienced difficulties growing up, explains Burke, who in his book Tears of the Fisherman discusses abortion in relation to imprisoned minority men.
“The abortion experience for men, especially with previous father loss, abuse, and trauma, can contribute to the other issues that can lead men to express their grief, loss, and rage from childhood abuse, and their abortion experiences, in destructive ways,” Burke says. “What we have learned is they seem to interact in a kind of toxic synergy.”
Research on men’s reactions to the abortions of potential children is scant. Much more has been done in regard to women’s reactions, and usually indicates that a majority do not say they regret having their abortions—at least in the first few years afterwards.
What data there are for men come from post-abortive support groups, making it difficult to draw broader observations overall. But the commonalities among these men’s accounts—such as the anger, guilt, shame, and deep sadness on anniversary dates—surely still warrant attention.
Such symptoms of post-abortive trauma have similarities with PTSD and so-called moral injuries from combat. I couldn’t help being struck by this after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and writing about coming to terms with what happened there.
Indeed, I can’t deny that my experience in Afghanistan and what followed has invariably informed my grappling with whether abortion can be justified.
After leaving the army in 2010, I went to journalism graduate school in Austin, Texas. It was a hugely restorative experience, and most restorative was the boringly old-fashioned act of meeting a young woman and falling in love.
Little did I know when I first saw her on campus that a few weeks before she had given birth to a daughter just after turning 20. For the first year of our courtship, she was very reluctant for me to meet the baby. But I was aware of her presence all the same. On one occasion, I bumped into her mother in the university library with a breast pump in hand.
Eventually I was permitted to meet the little wonder. Sarai usually slept beside her mother, which posed some challenges for our love life. The mom told me that she’d discovered she was pregnant with Sarai shortly after breaking up with the father, and that continuing the pregnancy had been the only option. How could I be anything but impressed with such courage on the part of a 19-year-old?
It brought to my mind a passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, which had been sent out to me in Afghanistan by a dear friend. Near the end of the last book, the main character, Guy Ridgeback, is faced with the dilemma of whether to care for a deceased lover’s illegitimate child by another man. He considers his father’s advice: “Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of ‘loss of face’.”
Even if you aren’t religious, there’s still an incredibly powerful point there, and it’s bugged the hell out of me ever since. Around the time I was reading Waugh, there was a Close Air Support bomb drop during a fire fight with the Taliban that took out their compound, in which, unbeknownst to us, civilians had also been sheltered. An Afghan man turned up at the camp with a cart containing human remains that included his three sons, two daughters, a nephew, and the nephew’s two wives, recovered from the ruins.
Couched in the disgrace of that cart, Sarai’s existence, which might also have so easily been obliterated, took on a new wonder, similar to how Scott Beauchamp in a TAC article described seeing his daughter for the first time: “a divine excess which produces unspeakable joy.”
I must emphasize that I am not for a moment suggesting that a woman getting an abortion equates to a child being killed in war as collateral damage. Accusing a woman of murdering a baby through an abortion is indicative of the serious lack of compassion that pervades much of this debate.
Women who choose to get abortions are often themselves victims of a type of collateral damage that stems from the likes of men who won’t support them or families they fear won’t understand. Far too much of the abortion debate focuses on women and not enough on how society functions to make pregnancy so terrifying and appear so impossible.
Despite the apparent chasm between those arguing for and against abortion, however, in my journalistic dealings, I’ve noticed that they agree on one key thing: society’s discourse about abortion is too polarized, lacks nuance and empathy, and is ultimately unhelpful.
At the same time, I empathize with the bind society is in. As soon as you go beyond “abortion is right” or “abortion is wrong” and try to get into the weeds, it becomes absurdly complicated. But it needs to happen all the same. And for all the vitriol that plays out in America at rallies and outside abortion clinics, at least the U.S. has had the gumption to engage in the debate, whereas in the likes of my native UK, most people can’t be bothered with parsing the finer details.
The post-abortive men I spoke to wanted to discuss their painful experiences in the hope that it will help other men dealing with similar trauma. They want to encourage men to think differently when confronted by unexpected pregnancies.
“It could help other men who find themselves with a pregnant woman, and just get them to slow down enough to think about how this is irreversible, a life-changing decision,” says 61-year-old Chuck Raymond. He was 17 when he got his 18-year-old girlfriend pregnant in 1976, resulting in an abortion.
It’s hard to see how anyone, regardless of their position on abortion, could object to that. Even if you believe that the final call must be the woman’s alone, men shouldn’t be simply erased from the decision process. That’s just illogical and callous. Further, as Purlington notes, times have changed.
“This isn’t the ’50s anymore,” he says. “Men are just as attached to their children as women are and just as responsible for them. The greatest injustice in this country today is that a man cannot protect his unborn child from abortion [in the same way that] protecting our children is part of our responsibility.”
Purlington sent me a photo of him and his seven-year-old old daughter, his “pride and joy.” And how could she not be: you couldn’t have an image of a happier, sweeter-looking child. Sarai is about the same age now. Things didn’t work out between her mother and me, though of course that doesn’t negate one bit my awe at how the emergence of this little girl changed the universe.
My apologies: I’m getting carried away. She isn’t even my child, after all. Perhaps us men are just too sentimental for our own good.
“There are so many men wounded [who are] walking around not knowing what to do or where they can go for help,” Purlington says. “A man is really not allowed to grieve the loss of his unborn baby. I was told things like: ‘Your child wasn’t even born, so get over it.’ ‘It wasn’t a baby yet.’”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.