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The Effects of Abortion on Men: its Emotional, Psychological and Relational Impact

by Vincent M. Rue, Cynthia Tellefsen

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  • Description:
    While the residual effects of abortion for women are now widely recognized, the effects on the men remain untold. This 1996 article by Vincent M. Rue and Cynthia Tellefsen explain the emotional, psychological and relational effects abortion has on the fathers of the unborn.
  • Larger Work:
    Ethics & Medics
  • Publisher & Date:
    National Catholic Bioethics Center, Philadelphia, PA, April 1996

While the evidence is mounting that induced abortion carries serious and significant emotional harm for some women, how abortion affects men remains largely a story unexamined and untold. In contemporary abortion practice, gender discrimination is rampant — women may choose, fathers may not. By law, fathers are excluded from participating in the abortion decision. Prior to a woman aborting her child, typically there are six scenarios of male involvement:

  1. he doesn't know she is pregnant and she aborts without his knowledge;
  2. he knows about the pregnancy but hides his own feelings or beliefs from the woman out of his attempt to "love" her and affirm her rights over her body;
  3. he pressures her to abort;
  4. he supports and encourages her decision to abort;
  5. he opposes the abortion and says so openly; and
  6. he abandons her physically and emotionally refusing responsibility for her or any of her choices.

Forgotten Fathers

In my clinical practice over the past 23 years, I have treated men in each of these categories. Some men never know that they have been fathers. Some come to psychotherapy with vague complaints and generally feel puzzlement about their life and why there is so little meaning in it. For others, their relationship with their wife or girlfriend simply ends abruptly or in a slow death. For those that manage to stay together, their relationship limps on with a conspiracy of silence. The manifold negative consequences of secrecy become apparent in the losses of intimacy, trust and mutual sharing. When the relationship ends, these men feel hurt and confused, never understanding what they can never know. Their hurt is likely to turn to feelings of anxiety and hostility which can manifest in subsequent relationships in the form of communication impairment and over or under-control. Still other men feel something is wrong and find out afterwards. They may then feel tremendous resentment toward the woman and either camouflage it or openly and negatively express it. Ironically, research now indicates that one of the strongest predictors of post-abortion psychological adjustment is partner support.

For men who know of their fatherhood and its demise, the feelings can burn intensely. In the only book on abortion and men, Shostak describes male abortion pain as the loss of fatherhood and a "wound you cannot see or feel, but it exists" (A. Shostak, Abortion & Men: Lessons, Losses & Love, N.Y.: Praeger, 1984). According to Shostak, a man gets an incredible message: at the first real evidence of his virility, his partner announces she is pregnant and he is the father and "we are going to have a $180 pregnancy termination." In interviewing 1000 men, Shostak found:

  1. abortion is a "death experience" and for most men more emotionally trying than they expected
  2. the most common post-abortion reaction was helplessness;
  3. men who are not helped to mourn over an abortion are learning how to be even less involved as nurturant parents in the future; and
  4. the majority of relationships failed post-abortion.

One sad reality of abortion is that sensitive men who try not to hurt the women they love in fact hurt them by saying nothing when the word "abortion" is first uttered in the decision making process. These men most likely will be swept aside post-abortion by an undercurrent of resentment stemming from their partner's feelings of abandonment. Desperately wanting to please, these men are rejected because they are judged deficient in their true love for their partners: "How could you say nothing during this crisis and let me just go out and kill our child? Is this all I mean to you?" According to one such father: "Things are pretty screwed up when the way you show a woman you love her is by agreeing to abort rather than having a child." These "forgotten fathers" must not only deal with their grief and sadness over the irrevocable loss of their children and their guilt about not protecting their offspring. They must also deal with the loss of their relationships with their children's mothers.

For men who pressure or encourage the women they care about to have an abortion, the test of true feelings emerges later on. Typically, having encouraged the abortion for selfish reasons or out of fear, these men can pay a great emotional price once the reality of what an abortion is sinks in. In Mulieris Dignitatem John Paul II made it clear that "by leaving her alone to face the problems of pregnancy, he indirectly encourages such a decision on her part (to abort)" (14:80). He goes on to say in Evangelium Vitae that "in this way the family is thus mortally wounded and profaned in its nature as a community of love and in its vocation to be the 'sanctuary of life'" (no. 59). Some men are so wounded by their abortion role that they abort their own lives. I have treated women whose partners committed suicide because they couldn't escape hearing the relentless little voices that kept saying: "Daddy, Daddy, please don't let me die." And for the man who stands up and opposes an abortion, under the law he has no legal recourse and cannot defend his child's right to life. His grief is punctuated with impotency and feelings of helplessness. Words are just not enough to prevent his child's death.

Grief, Guilt & Loss

According to recent research, men do grieve following abortion, but they are more likely to deny their grief or internalize their feelings of loss rather than openly express them. Then too, in our culture men are typically discouraged from expressing their feelings. When men do express their grief, they tend to do so in culturally prescribed "masculine" ways, i.e., anger, aggressiveness, control. Men typically grieve in a private way following an abortion. Because of this, men's requests for help may often go unrecognized and unheeded by those around them. Research evidence now suggests that following the loss of their unborn child some men may in fact grieve more than the mother. According to this same research, men are more likely to feel despair after a pregnancy loss, including a pervasive sense of hopelessness, one of the signs of chronic grief (Stinson, et al., "Parents' Grief Following Pregnancy Loss: A Comparison of Mothers and Fathers," Family Relations 41(1992): 218-223). Men's lives contain greater attachments and are more profoundly affected by fatherhood than is usually assumed. One father whose child died from abortion described his grief this way: "I wasn't in the room; I wasn't even in the clinic that day. But in my mind, I've been there a million times since. I've been there watching, breaking, wanting to rescue you. In my mind I need to be a hero not a killer, the man who didn't flee. But I am not. I am the man I fear I see."

The Death Imprint

When there is agreement to an innocent death, its imprint can surface unexpectedly. Induced abortion reinforces defective problem solving on the part of the male by encouraging detachment, desertion and irresponsibility. The death imprint of abortion can be felt in role conflict and personality decompensation. Whether or not the male was involved in the abortion decision, his inability to function in a socially prescribed manner, i.e., to protect and provide, leaves him wounded and confused. Abortion rewrites the rules of masculinity. While a male is expected to be strong, abortion makes him feel weak. A male is expected to be responsible, yet abortion encourages him to act without concern for the innocent and to destroy any identifiable and undesirable outcomes of his sexual decision-making and/or attachments. A male is expected to protect, but by law he is encouraged to do otherwise.

All humans must grieve a loss or they will in some way be tormented. Typical male grief responses include remaining silent and grieving alone. In the silence, a male can harbor guilt and doubts about his ability to protect himself and those he loves. These "silent sufferers" who feel they must not talk or cry may appear tough, but inside they crumble under the crushing weight of their own conscience and shame. Men who have experienced abortion death can become traumatized by this significant loss. Some become depressed and/or anxious, others compulsive, controlling, demanding and directing. Still others become enraged, and failure in any relationship can trigger repressed hostility from their disenfranchised abortion grief. To mask or substitute the need to grieve fosters denial and forces a male to become a "fugitive" from life, loving and healing.

Relationships at Risk

A guilt-ridden, tormented male does not easily love or accept love. His preoccupation with his partner, his denial of himself and his relentless feelings of post-abortion emptiness can nullify even the best of intentions. His guilt may prevent him from seeking compassion, support or affection. In turn, he "forgets" how to reciprocate these feelings. When a couple experiences an abortion, it is likely that the following occur: (1) a reduction in the amount of self-disclosure by both partners which decreases the amount of intimacy necessary for relationship survival; (2) increased use of defensive communication behaviors (e.g., interpersonal hostility); (3) the development of partner communication apprehensiveness (fear translated into avoidance behaviors), the erosion of trust, and the evolution into a closed (vs. open and dynamic) system of interaction; and (4) a loss of spiritual connectedness to God and to one's partner with the advent of guilt, shame and isolation.

The Challenge of Objective Truth

The lamentable reality of abortion is a fundamental index of our failure as a society to read and follow our moral compass. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor points out that subjective assessments of crises must always be examined within the context of one's own conscience and objective truths. Only now are we beginning to see the extent of the harm abortion visits on women, men and the surviving children. It is clear that in addition to the other victims of abortion, men too suffer. They too pay a high price for reproductive "freedom." They too lose in the high stakes world of reproductive "choice" guided only by the self and expediency. Killing hurts the living too. It knows no gender bias.

© National Catholic Bioethics Center

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