By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
By Kelsey McClure
By Lindsay Toler
[Editor's Note: Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.]
They were halcyon days: Joe* was seventeen years old, a senior at a St. Louis high school. He had a close group of friends, excelled at sports and was a good student working toward a big academic scholarship at a local university. His girlfriend of about a year, Martha*, was eighteen and in her first year of junior college, living at home with her parents. Joe and Martha were in love and dreamed of getting married someday.
Eventually, Joe and Martha did what many teenage couples do: They had sex. Both were virgins and, a few weeks later, when Martha began feeling ill and took a pregnancy test at a girlfriend's urging, they realized that the consequences of their pleasure were weightier than they had previously thought.
Joe says that he realized Martha was upset, that something was wrong beyond her mysterious physical illness, and confronted her. When she told him she was pregnant, he says, "We were scared to death. We were in a panic as to what to do about it, and the idea of something like temporary insanity comes into it."
Within a week Joe was sitting with Martha's mother in the waiting room at Planned Parenthood.
"[Martha] went away and, some time later, came back without our child," he says.
It was 1976, and abortion had been legal in the United States for three years.
But that January day still weighs on Joe. Thirty-four years later, twisting a heavy class ring around his finger, the gaudy blue stone flashing, and his eyes set firmly on his knees, he lingers on the memory of a decision he says not only changed his life, but permanently marred his soul.
And now he's doing something about it.
Today, Joe is part of a new effort to reach people just like him — people whose lives were changed by abortion even though they physically never underwent the procedure.
They are the men in the waiting room.
Men have long taken the back seat in the national conversation about abortion, but now, even if they're not driving it, they've at least graduated to passenger-seat status.
Abortion has been causing controversy for hundreds of years, ever since women discovered that drinking an infusion of the root of Acorus calamus could induce miscarriage. But the face of the abortion debate is ever changing — and it looks increasingly like Joe and other post-abortive men.
Opponents of abortion can't overturn Roe v. Wade, not with the current U.S. Supreme Court anyway, so they chip away at protections and count on fear or revulsion to gain leverage for their cause. They've won some battles: In certain states women must be evaluated by a counselor before their abortion is approved, waiting 24 hours between their screening session and the procedure itself. The ban on partial-birth abortion is another result of anti-abortion proponents strategically reframing the debate.
Pro-lifers have also been shifting the focus from the legal right to have an abortion to the emotional consequences of exercising it. Healing and reconciliation programs tailored to men like Joe are right in this wheelhouse. The Catholic Church — perhaps the strongest voice against abortion rights in America today — leads the way in providing such services.
But it's not just pro-lifers who are reaching out to men. Pro-choice proponents, too, are adding new counseling and education services for male partners. They're unwavering in their commitment to helping women, but they're increasingly recognizing men's emotional needs and, perhaps, the political importance of indulging them.
Both are finally recognizing what experts have always known: Men are affected by abortion. Both sides spout the same statistics — 50 million abortions since Roe v. Wade in 1973, and one in three women have abortions before age 40. Both profess the goal of helping men.
Their interpretations of the statistics and what constitutes "help," however, differ dramatically.
Where pro-choicers see 50 million men relieved of the burden of caring for a child they hadn't planned for, pro-lifers see the 50 million Father's Day cards those children will never send.
On that January morning in 1976, Joe drove to Martha's parents' house and climbed onto the front bench seat in Martha's mother's van. Martha's mother drove, Joe sat on the passenger side, and Martha sat between them. None of them spoke during the drive to Planned Parenthood.
Joe and Martha's parents had met for the first time a few days before, after discovering Martha's pregnancy. The two families went to dinner to discuss what should happen next. While Joe and Martha sat silently, their parents decided that marriage was out of the question — too young — so it would have to be an abortion.
"I remember she and I, my girlfriend and I, being there, but not really being real," says Joe. "It was like the board was meeting, and it was decided that that was what we were going to do. I didn't feel like I even had a part of it."
Joe had been raised Catholic and attended Mass every few weeks. Yes, he thought premarital sex was a sin, he now says, but felt that it was "kind of expected" in the '70s. He and his girlfriend had fleetingly considered marriage or adoption, but those thoughts dissolved quickly in the face of their parents' shared insistence that they terminate the unplanned pregnancy. He was a scared kid and listened to his parents.