Abortion activists have a new target: men

Sep 8, 2010 at 4:00 am
Abortion activists have a new target: men
[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.

"We weren't asked; it wasn't discussed," he says. "We didn't talk about other alternatives or anything. You talk about choice. There wasn't any choice that was going on. It was kind of a presumption and a movement toward how we could make this problem go away by aborting our child."

When Joe, Martha and Martha's mother arrived at the clinic, Joe paid for the abortion — about $350, as he remembers — then sat and waited, feeling both numbness and relief.

He would be numb, he says, for decades.

Fast-forward to the mid-'90s, after Joe had finished college, served in the military and renewed his Catholic faith. He'd married Martha and had two children with her, a boy and a girl.

One Sunday, he was at Mass without Martha. He heard a sermon about reconciliation and healing after abortion, a subject that had been "untouchable" between him and his wife in the twenty years since the abortion — even in the first years after, when she had suicidal episodes, screaming that she had killed her baby and didn't deserve to live, Joe says. The doctors wrote off these statements as the nonsensical ranting of a depressed woman, and it went unaddressed in her treatment.

Joe didn't think of the abortion often. "My coping strategy was just to harden my heart and just put it away."

The sermon, he says, "hit me like a ton of bricks, like a thunderbolt. Like, 'Wow, that's it; I can't avoid that anymore. I can't pretend like it's not there.'"

It took weeks for Joe to tell Martha what he'd heard about the services the church offered, how he thought it could help Martha cope with her underlying depression. A few weeks after that, they found a babysitter and headed to a counseling session at the church, their first introduction to Project Rachel.

Project Rachel is a national program that has been offered within the Archdiocese of St. Louis since the early '80s. Women who have had abortions are invited to support groups and counseling, given the chance to confess their sins to a priest and receive penance, and participate in a naming ceremony for their unborn child, after which they are given a sort of faux birth certificate.

Project Rachel counseling has always been open to men in couples, says Beth Lauver, director of the Respect Life Apostolate, the St. Louis archdiocese's office for pro-life programs. However, the project's retreats were only open to women.

Then Lauver heard of a program in Kansas City, Kansas, that was essentially identical to Project Rachel, but tailored for men, called Project Joseph.

Pat Klausner, program coordinator for Projects Rachel and Joseph in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, says that though men were welcome to join the group, she started a separate program in 2004 when she suspected the name "Rachel" turned men away from the program.

"We thought maybe the name 'Joseph,' which could refer to either Joseph in the Old Testament or the New Testament, would catch a man's eye," she says, "and make him think, 'Hey, this is for me.'"

In the six years since she began Project Joseph in Kansas City, she says, about a dozen men have gone through the program.

"It's very difficult for men to come forward," Klausner says. "They don't realize how much this has impacted them."

The first announcement of St. Louis' Project Joseph appeared in mid-July in church bulletins throughout the archdiocese. Above a photograph of a young man in a button-down shirt with his eyes closed and palms pressed together in an earnestly prayerful position, a headline announces, "Services Expanding for Those Wounded by Abortion."

"Abortion has long been seen as a 'women's-only issue,'" the article begins. "While mothers certainly carry the physical scars of abortion, mothers, fathers, grandparents and so many others have deep emotional and spiritual wounds after the losses of these children."

Fathers, the article insists, suffer uniquely, and the Church can help. Project Joseph will be the St. Louis archdiocese's first men's-only post-abortion healing program, kicking off with its first retreat on September 25.

"It's tough for a lot of men to acknowledge a source of pain in their lives — but they're acknowledging that this is the loss of their child," Lauver says. "Some knew about it when it was happening, some didn't. So the type of grief and the feelings and emotions are all very different."

"There's clearly a difference between the father's involvement and the mother's involvement," Joe, now 52, says. "For me it was being helpless, being irresponsible, being selfish and just not being there as I should have been. But I didn't have the physical pain and the memory of that, nor did I have the motherhood."

Susanne Harvath has worked with Project Rachel since its inception in St. Louis, first as its director and now as the clinical director for Project Rachel and the nascent Project Joseph. She is a professional counselor and also teaches classes at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury.

Harvath says men suffer feelings of regret and guilt after an abortion, which usually intensify with time.

"When a subsequent child is born for that male, it can become more of an issue," Harvath says. "Because as they look at that child, as they hold that child, they say, 'This is my second child; this isn't my first child,' in remembrance of that abortion."

On a recent Saturday outside the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Illinois, about fifteen minutes from downtown St. Louis, more than 50 people cluster on the sidewalk. They recite Scripture and clutch signs with gory pictures of fetuses juxtaposed against smiling portraits of young children. Anxious young women offer fistfuls of pamphlets, and two men with digital cameras circle every car that stops on or near the lot, snapping shots of the license plates and the people inside, while a public-safety officer stands coolly by, arms crossed.

All of the groups standing outside the clinic are religiously affiliated. One woman waves a large Project Rachel sign over her head like a flag, screaming at a young black woman who's entering the building with her head down and sunglasses on: "You don't have to kill your baby!"

Rebecca Turner is an ordained Southern Baptist minister and, for the last nine years, the executive director of Faith Aloud, a pro-choice abortion counseling hot line that connects callers with clergy for advice and a sympathetic ear. She is familiar with Project Rachel and sees the so-called healing retreats it offers as a sort of boot camp, training post-abortive women and men to join the anti-abortion army.

"They always begin by getting the women to admit — in this case, for the men, that they have been party to — admit that they have murdered their own child. And of course they are told that they have to feel shame and guilt for that," says Turner. "[Men are told they should] never have allowed it to happen. And that they have serious sins to confess."

The idea? "The only way you're going to get forgiven by God is if you join forces with us, if you get on the picket line, or write letters, or whatever it is, to take some action, and that's how God's going to forgive you."

Father Kevin Schroeder, a St. Louis priest who has worked with Project Rachel participants, acknowledges that he often assigns pro-life activism as penance, a way for "people to feel like they're giving something back from what they took away when they made that decision."

"It can be anything from praying to going to stand outside an abortion clinic," Schroeder says. "It's kind of up to them in what they feel most comfortable and most capable of fulfilling."

Participants in Projects Rachel and Joseph are also told about post-abortion syndrome, a controversial diagnosis that the Church assigns to many of them, although no medical expert would prescribe medication for it.

Though not found in any authoritative medical-health text, post-abortion syndrome is one of the pro-life side's go-to arguments. The idea was introduced in the early '80s, soon after Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was first officially recognized. Pro-life activists say the trauma of having a child removed from the body is akin to the psychological effects soldiers faced after the Vietnam War, complete with lingering depression and suicidal tendencies lurking in the shadowy parts of the psyche.

The American Psychological Association took on post-abortion syndrome in 1989 and formed a task force that examined all English-language studies that dealt with the topic, hoping to answer definitively whether it was real. In 2008, they revived the task force to review the data.

Both times they came to the same conclusion.

Their August 2008 report stated that, based on existing studies, increased suicide and depression rates are not medical risks of abortion. It was rare, the study said, that a woman would experience a "severe negative reaction after a legal, non-restrictive first-trimester abortion."

The task force found that studies conducted on the subject were inherently flawed. Some attributed depression to the abortion experience, when the subject had suffered mental-health problems before; some failed to provide a control group of women who carried an unwanted pregnancy to term; others included findings on women who aborted unwanted pregnancies alongside findings on women who had terminated a wanted pregnancy for medical reasons, when the situations were clearly not comparable.

The task force did acknowledge that although some women felt sadness or a sense of loss after an abortion, they did not find "evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and a mental-health problem was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors."

An April 2010 appellate court decision used the report's findings to overturn a 2005 law passed by the South Dakota state legislature that would require pre-abortion counselors to warn that "increased suicide and ideation of suicide" was a known medical risk of abortion. The court called the warning "false and misleading."

Despite this, Project Rachel's Lauver calls post-abortion syndrome a "very real issue, a real syndrome," and Harvath, Project Rachel's clinical director, says that any post-abortive man or woman who claims to be unaffected by post-abortion syndrome symptoms is not telling the truth.

"Some people have the ability to deny its effects and, believe me, denial takes a tremendous amount of energy in our life," she says. "But the reality is that a human being who takes the life of another innocent human being is going to be affected by that."

Klausner, the Project Joseph director in Kansas City, says that when a man comes to her, she goes through the list of post-abortion syndrome symptoms and asks him if he can identify with them. He usually does.

But Claire Keyes, director of the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says that abortion doesn't cause mental illness. "It's not really a syndrome. But that doesn't mean there aren't women who regret their abortions," she says. "There are also women who regret having given birth.

"Most women who regret their abortions, or get fixated on abortion as having ruined their lives, are often people who have had many other difficulties in their lives, and somehow abortion gets picked as the reason that everything went awry or that everything went askew. That loss isn't worse than any other loss and in fact could be less so on its face, because you're not dealing with a known human being — it's more a potential life.

"Sad things happen. And then the question is: And then what do you do?"

If the abortion war has a geographic frontline, it's the Midwest. Last summer, the media fixated on the murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller, who was shot in the face as he entered his Wichita church. In 1976, the Supreme Court heard Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, which struck down the state's requirement of spousal notification and consent for an abortion.

Even so, these days, Missouri has some of the country's most onerous restrictions on abortion; many werepassed in the last legislative session. In addition to mandatory pre-abortion counseling, state law now requires abortion providers to supply extensive information about adoption alternatives, as well as literature stating that "the life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being." The first Men's Summit, hosted in 2005 by the pro-life Men and Abortion Network, took place in Kansas City, and Project Joseph's first chapter sprung forth there as well.

Rickie Solinger, a historian and curator who specializes in reproductive rights, says that the focus of the abortion debate shifts with time and culture. Before abortion was legalized, Solinger says, no one was talking about killing babies, but rather about rejecting motherhood.

"It was a woman's responsibility and role to become a mother," Solinger says. "People did not talk about and were not concerned about the fetus. 'Why would she have sex if she wasn't willing to be a mother?' They were questioning her about her sexuality, not about this fetus."

"There was never ever in the courtroom, or in any other venue, a concern for the sperm [or] for the man who produced the sperm," she says. "The father is a social role."

The focus on the father, Solinger says, is the newest strategy of anti-abortion activists in a time when strictly religious arguments rarely sway opinions and "our Oprah-addict culture" laps up personal stories of suffering.

"It's not to say that there aren't men who wish their sex partners would have a baby when they get pregnant, would love the person who got pregnant, would want to make a family with them," she says. "Men have their hearts broken, too."

Solinger says the pro-life strategy of extending post-abortion syndrome to men is clever in this cultural moment, when many people spend most of their time on couches, either in therapists' offices talking about their problems, or in their own living rooms, peering at others' tragedies on TV.

"It's a natural progression from claiming that all women who get abortions suffer post-abortion trauma to saying, 'By the way, the men who are their sex partners also suffer.' This is a domain where claiming suffering is a very important claim for getting popular and legislative support."

Whether this new strategy of male victimhood will work, however, is anyone's guess.

"Historians don't predict the future. Or, we shouldn't, anyway," she says.

Since 2004, long before pro-lifers turned their focus on men, Claire Keyes has used her website, www.menandabortion.com, to fight back against pro-life scare tactics with statistics and straight answers to men's frequently asked questions.

On pro-life sites, she says, men "could be reading all kinds of scary things and thinking, 'Should I stop her from doing this because she could get breast cancer?' Because that still appears on various websites, even on some states' websites, even though it's totally wrong."

Today, however, Google reveals a few new results for a "men and abortion" search, just below Keyes' site — www.menandabortion.info and www.menandabortion.net — registered on back-to-back days in 2006. The organization behind these sites, the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing, was a consultant in the formation of Project Rachel and its fraternal twin, Project Joseph. The pro-life sites link to shaky research about couvade, or sympathetic pregnancy, as more evidence that men inevitably suffer after their partner has an abortion — exactly the misinformation Keyes worries about.

But if men are potentially being used as political pawns by pro-lifers, even pro-choice researchers believe that men's needs in abortion are left behind — just another problem swept aside by the whirlwind of a crisis pregnancy. And it's quite a large population that's being passed over when counseling and research are focused exclusively on women.

Arthur Shostak, a sociologist and professor emeritus at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has studied men affected by abortion — whom he refers to as "waiting-room males" — for decades. His research shows that approximately half of the women who show up for appointments at abortion clinics are accompanied by a man, be it father, friend or sexual partner.

Shostak began studying males after supporting an ex-girlfriend through her abortion in the '70s. In essence, he is studying his peers: men like him who were left tensed in a cold waiting room for hours during the procedure.

Of his early research in the 1980s, he says, "It was clear that males were the equivalent of Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man,' that is, were not seen by power-holders."

In an essay, Shostak describes finding an empty stand in a clinic waiting room where brochures geared toward men should be. Instead, it was stuffed with cigarette butts. The staffer responsible for stocking the literature, he was told, was simply too busy to distribute the pamphlets.

At another clinic, he found that when men asked to use the bathroom, they were directed across the street to a pizza parlor. Men weren't just being neglected in the counseling and care process at abortion clinics; they were being treated with hostility.

Clinic workers like Keyes attribute the sometimes fiercely female-oriented clinic environments to lingering resentment over the fact that, historically, men made all the big decisions for women.

"If you go all the way back to, say, the first wave [of feminism], I think there were really strong feelings against letting men in the picture at all," Keyes says. "Women wanted it to be a women's issue."

Some men, however, are still intent on having their say in the matter. In 2002, a Pennsylvania man named John Stachokus successfully delayed his ex-girlfriend's abortion for a week while a judge considered whether Stachokus had legal grounds to stop her. Stachokus pleaded with Tanya Meyers, nine weeks pregnant with a child he had conceived with her, to carry her pregnancy to term and then transfer full legal responsibility of the child to him.

Meyers was allowed to have an abortion.

"Neither an ex-boyfriend nor a fetus has the standing to interfere with a woman's choice to terminate her pregnancy," the court decreed.

Michael McCormick, executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, calls men's lack of legal standing in abortion cases "somewhat problematic."

"One of the paradoxes that we have is that a woman can make a decision to terminate a pregnancy, and the father of that particular child has no say with respect to whether or not that takes place," he says. "On the other hand, a woman can decide to have a child, and if the father does not want to be a father, he has obviously no say in whether that child is terminated. But beyond that he can be unilaterally obligated to eighteen years of child support for that child."

He says there are "some real question marks" in a woman's total control over the decision-making process, though his organization has no official stance on the question.

Turner of Faith Aloud says she knows how difficult a disagreement between partners — one is in favor of abortion, the other is not — can be.

"The real problem happens when we hear those that are opposed to abortion say that the men should have equal say, as if there's two votes that count," she says. "The problem is, if it's a tie vote, then what do you do? If one of them says yes to abortion, and the other one says yes to a baby, then somebody has to have the final say, and we cannot give men veto power over what a woman does with her own body."

Beyond men's legal frustrations, Shostak found that waiting-room males would welcome more counseling and educational services in clinics.

In 1999, Shostak called 127 clinics across the country to find out what kind of services they offered for men. Only 22 percent allowed men to be in the procedure room with their partners, and though 94 percent of men surveyed said that they wanted to hold their partner's hand in the recovery room, just 24 percent of the clinics allowed this. A mere 40 percent offered counseling to men along with their partners, though a majority of men wanted this option.

But abortion providers say that's impossible in some cases. Limitations both on funds and physical space prevent most clinics from fully serving men.

"There's never enough money to offer all the things that we would like to for both women and men," says Keyes.

Plus, providers say, women still don't get all the attention they need.

"The patient is the woman. Adult or teen, the patient is the woman," says Paula Gianino, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. All confidentiality issues, medical decisions and even who is allowed past the metal detectors guarding Planned Parenthood's main building on Forest Park Avenue fall to the woman. "Because she is our patient, we will do everything we can to support her, protect her confidentiality and privacy."

If that means men's desires must fall by the wayside, then so be it.

Keyes, however, offers something she thinks is therapeutic for waiting-room males, even if they aren't able to be in the procedure room or the recovery room. In the waiting room in her clinic, she keeps two journals labeled "For Men." In them, men can read letters, poems, rants and doodles from other men who have sat exactly where they are sitting and then add their own thoughts.

Keyes hopes to publish the journal entries one day.

"I think it's one of the biggest gifts that we give men, that we don't censor it, so that some of them can say that they're really angry or brokenhearted," she says. "Some of them are kind of self-loathing. I think that it's a way for men to feel like they understand how other people feel, which can help them to process their own feelings."

One of these journal entries, made in all capital letters, reads: "To my unborn child: I'm sorry that we were not ready, and I'm sorry I hurt your mom's feelings by saying we were. She was right as she always is. Now is not the time. I hope you can forgive me, I hope God can forgive me, I hope I can forgive me. I don't know what else to say."

Another, dated October 10, 2008, reads: "I am a grown man, but after reading this book, my body feels little and my heart does too...Right now this really isn't time for a child. I always promised myself I would honor and do right with my kid. I think this is doing right. For every man who looks at this, you are already a man for even coming down here."

Aaron Gouveia, a 31-year-old newspaper reporter from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is a man who has seen two outcomes of pregnancy — both the pain and loss of possibility that come with abortion and the joyful satisfaction of fatherhood that tantalizes would-be fathers.

Gouveia blogs on his site, The Daddy Files, about raising his two-year-old son, Will. When his wife learned she was pregnant with the couple's second child, he blogged about it.

When Gouveia and his wife were told in early July, thirteen weeks into her pregnancy, that their child had a genetic disorder called Sirenomelia that affects 1 in every 100,000 fetuses, that their baby had no kidneys or bladder, and its legs were fused together, and that there was no chance of a live birth, he blogged about that, too.

"I saw this kid's hands," he writes in a blog entry titled "All Out of Miracles." "The complexities of the spine. The beating heart. This baby wasn't just an amorphous blob or a speck on a grainy black-and-white ultrasound picture. It was formed with a head, a body, legs, femurs. We're just about at 15 weeks, and this is a goddamn little person who is dying inside my wife. And a piece of me has died with him/her.

"I tried so hard to be strong for [my wife], but I failed miserably."

A few short weeks later, Gouveia and his wife walked through protestors on their way into the abortion clinic, his wife crying as protestors screamed that she was killing her baby, and Gouveia sat alone in the waiting room, not allowed in the operating room with her.

"There's nothing worse than hearing that you're going to lose your kid, and it's out of your control; you're completely helpless," he says.

Now, with weeks' distance from those hours in the waiting room, Gouveia has scheduled private counseling, calling his recovery "a work in progress."

Though he has never met Joe — the St. Louis man now working with the Catholic Church's post-abortion programs — Gouveia echoes the male conflict many associated with Project Joseph identified.

"Since the baby's not inside of you, you don't know what level you can be affected by it. You feel like you shouldn't be," Gouveia says, "so you stuff it all down in there."

Joe and Gouveia are more alike than they would probably think.

Both are haunted by the loss of their unborn child, and both find that sharing their stories with other men in their situations helps them cope, Gouveia on his blog, and Joe via the upcoming Project Joseph retreat.

Joe says that he participates in prayer and clinic protest because of a "passionate desire to help others stop the madness that allows this to continue." Gouveia is considering volunteering as a clinic escort, to try and protect women and their partners from the harassment he and his wife endured.

Politically, their reactions are polar opposites. But across the country and across the 30-year span between their wives' abortions, some of the pain they feel may be the same.

"If you're married to someone, and you love them, maybe even if it's not physically happening to you, it is happening to you," Gouveia acknowledges. "You're a couple: What happens to one happens to the other. If I could have traded places with my wife, I would have in a heartbeat.

"The only thing I could do was try to make some good of the situation."