Pity the man who conceived four babies with four women and suffered anxiety attacks and nightmares after all four, with his consent, were aborted. Pity the man who saw his soon-to-be-born baby on an ultrasound and instantly came to believe that he “had killed two of my own kids” through abortion. Pity the man who abused alcohol after his girlfriend aborted. Pity the man who suffered a nervous breakdown, depression, psychosis and nearly suicide after his girlfriend had an abortion despite his pleas.
And pity these men who, wittingly or not, are allowing their pain to be co-opted for political gain. Whatever the cause of their suffering, it is real and they deserve support. But they are also the new face of the antiabortion movement: Post-Abortion Syndrome — for men. In conferences and counseling, they’re being wrapped in the fuzzy blankets of men’s healing, but behind these men and their stories are the same crackpot research, coercive counseling and policy-by-anecdote that have defined the antiabortion movement’s tactical emphasis on women’s suffering after abortion. It’s a maxim among the antichoice crowd these days that there are “two victims of abortion”; the men’s PAS movement wants to take that to three.
A casual prochoice activist might dismiss this movement out of hand. After all, politically speaking there’s no great constituency for men’s PAS. The men’s rights movement — which fights to improve men’s standing in custody, child support and fatherhood-related issues, on which they say the law favors women — doesn’t particularly embrace men’s PAS: men’s rights advocates are divided on abortion, and besides, some say, the pain of losing a child to abortion simply doesn’t measure up to the pain of losing one’s born children. Plus, the Supreme Court has definitively told men, including husbands, that they have no rights when it comes to abortion, which leaves antichoice activists no judicial openings to revive, for instance, spousal notification laws.
Still, it’s clear that men’s PAS is a syndrome whose moment has come. The first conference dealing with men’s pain after abortion was held in San Francisco last fall, and the National Right to Life Committee included men’s PAS in its annual convention last summer. Many counseling centers dealing with women’s postabortion suffering now include resources for men, while activist groups are collecting men’s testimonies about their postabortion suffering for use in the courts.
This isn’t all just coincidence, and it’s not all about healing. Post-Abortion Syndrome has rocked the antiabortion world. It has given new humanity to a movement that even a decade ago seemed locked in violence and lacking in empathy. More important, by blaming abortion for divorce and child abuse, depression and drug use, sex addiction and suicide, it has given conservatives a very distinct culprit in the disintegration of American family values — and another argument for ending the thirty-five-year reign of Roe v. Wade.
Time was, fighting abortion was about the unborn: think “pro-life,” and images of clinic protesters and posters of fetuses come to mind. But the softer side of the movement has been growing, embodied first and foremost in the argument that abortion hurts women. “Abortion hurts women” was a major rallying cry in the effort to ban abortion in South Dakota and other states, and in numerous informed-consent legislative efforts. Most recently, it is the target of “scientific” investigation by Missouri Governor Matt Blunt’s Task Force on the Impact of Abortion on Women, convened in October and made up of abortion foes only.
In a coup for PAS advocates, Justice Anthony Kennedy echoed their argument in the Supreme Court’s Gonzales v. Carhart decision, which upheld the “partial birth” abortion ban. “Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision…[which] some women come to regret,” he wrote, not specifying but clearly referring to the assumptions of devastating harm. “In a decision so fraught with emotional consequence,” he argued, “the State’s interest in respect for life is advanced” by disclosing “the consequences that follow from a decision to elect a late-term abortion.” Oddly, Kennedy asserted that not just pregnant women but everyone — “the political and legal systems, the medical profession, expectant mothers, and society as a whole” — would benefit from such disclosure. And one didn’t sense late-term was his only concern: while acknowledging the dearth of “reliable data” regarding abortion, Kennedy signaled that if faced with better evidence that the procedure hurts women, he might give it a second look.
The problem, of course, is that Post-Abortion Syndrome, as the mixture of purported symptoms has become known, does not exist. As a disease, it is the bastard child of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which officially became a psychological disorder in 1980. PAS proponents claim that many women — maybe epidemic numbers of women — who have had abortions experience guilt, shame, lowered self-esteem, insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, anger toward men, sexual dysfunction, depression and even suicidal thoughts or attempts; to cope, these women often turn to alcohol or drugs or sexual promiscuity; marriages often fall apart. Activists also claim a strong association between abortion and child abuse: willingness to harm the unborn, the logic goes, leads to a willingness to harm the born.
The data to prove the existence of PAS come from a combination of deeply flawed original research — featuring tiny samples and lack of controls — and the manipulation of large samples into correlations from which pseudo-researchers claim causation. Among the most prominent forms of “data” circulating in the American political system are a few thousand PAS testimonies collected with the express purpose of being used in court to help overturn Roe v. Wade — hardly a scientific sample.
This is not to say that some people don’t experience mixed emotions after abortion. Indeed, experts suggest that complex feelings after abortion are common and compare these to similar dynamics around marriage, childbearing and other major life decisions.
But PAS advocates aren’t talking about everyday ambivalence or even sadness: they’re talking about devastating, life-changing pathology, which mainstream research simply does not support. Post-Abortion Syndrome does not exist in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the widely used guide to accepted disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association convened a task force that is completing a major review of all the postabortion research; this year it is expected to offer a serious critique of those studies and the methodologies used to compose them. Indeed, studies tend to show that the biggest predictor of postabortion troubles is preabortion troubles. Of the link between abortion and postabortion psychological problems, Nada Stotland, president-elect of the APA, says “it’s a dead horse.”
But the weakness of PAS as a psychological disorder does not slow its spread: the syndrome has political legs.
Among the hundreds of panels at the National Right to Life Committee’s annual conference last July was one on “Lost Fatherhood,” focusing on the grief of “postabortive” men. Then in November, the Knights of Columbus and the Archdiocese of San Francisco sponsored the first conference on Post-Abortion Syndrome among men. Titled “Reclaiming Fatherhood,” it was set up as a “safe space” for men healing from abortion. “You might need tissues,” organizer Vicki Thorn, founder of the Catholic Church’s postabortion counseling project, Project Rachel, and founder and head of the nonprofit National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation, told the group as the conference began. “Give yourself the time and space to unwind, because you don’t want to leave here so uptight because of the pain and suffering you heard.”
Held in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, the gathering of 175 participants from nine countries was filled with gentle talk in gentle tones, typical of the conversation around men’s PAS these days. Vincent Rue, an amiable psychology-professor type and the dean of PAS research, whose two presentations were the centerpieces of the conference, opened one of his talks invoking T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” as a metaphor for postabortive men: “Remember us — if at all — not as lost/ Violent souls, but only/As the hollow men/The stuffed men.”
It was that kind of conference. The presenters who spoke included not activists or strategists but Christian-oriented counselors, men’s healing gurus, a priest and two researchers, including Rue, who directs the Florida-based Institute for Pregnancy Loss. Indeed, before the event prochoice activists had talked about protesting the conference but decided it wasn’t the right atmosphere for confrontation.
The first four speakers were all “postabortive men,” and they had all had a hard row to hoe. One of them was Jason Baier, now head of the Fatherhood Forever Foundation, who gave a heartfelt biography of his pre- and postabortion life: his secular Catholic upbringing, his parents’ divorce, his “very low self-esteem.” He told of joining the Air Force, going wild, drinking a bottle of Jack Daniel’s every night and having sex with anyone who would. When his girlfriend got pregnant, he said, “I did everything I could to plead with her not to have the abortion.” He said he offered to raise the child himself, but she aborted anyway. A nervous breakdown followed, then violent fighting with and separation from his girlfriend, diagnosis of severe depression and psychosis, cocaine and marijuana use and, nearly, a suicide. All, he told the group, because of “what I had lost.”
Individually, it is difficult to turn a deaf ear to these histories. But the stories that men’s PAS activists present are strikingly homogeneous and uncannily close to familiar conservative culture-war narratives: indulgence in the dissolute mainstream culture, confrontation with abortion, unraveling and then some sort of redemption. Of the millions of men who have been exposed to abortion’s harmful potential, a goodly number will be those who pushed the woman to abort; these men, down the road, will suffer extreme guilt. Another goodly number will be those whose partners aborted either without telling them or even though they begged for the life of the child; these men will suffer from extreme grief.
And if women’s pain from abortion has been ignored, men’s has been ignored all the more because men have been marginalized in our feminist, feminized society. Here the story gets entwined with traditional, and essentialized, ways of seeing men. Because a man’s instinct is to protect and provide for his offspring, his very masculinity is challenged when his child, born or unborn, is killed. And because men tend to deny their emotions — their “pain is taboo in our culture,” said one conference presenter — they avoid thinking about abortion. Their “impacted grief,” exposed as anger, leads them down many nasty roads — inability to connect with others being a key one but also abuse of drugs or alcohol, sex addiction, impotence, abuse of pornography, depression. Finding God seems to be one thing that helps.
Over and over again in the basement of St. Mary’s, PAS men and researchers alike argued by anecdote: “You cannot debate an experience,” one said. “Testimonies don’t lie,” said another. “We can’t fight the game of numbers,” said a third.
And it’s true: you cannot debate an anecdote. But you can debate a generalization, and there are many problems with theirs. To begin with, if the science on women’s PAS is bad, what exists on men is junk. Mainstream researchers, psychologists and professors agree there is no valid research on PAS and men. Even Catherine Coyle, a researcher who has devoted herself to proving that abortion has widespread deleterious effects, said at the San Francisco gathering that the twenty-eight studies of men and abortion undertaken since 1973 are marred by small sample size, poor measurement tools, lack of control groups and other methodological flaws.
Second, listening to those who treat PAS in men, you realize that they are leading men to blame their abortion experiences for pre-existing and subsequent problems — in ways that mental health experts, including the APA’s Stotland, compare to the role of therapists in generating the epidemic of recovered memories of sexual abuse in the 1990s.
Indeed, getting men to accept the PAS claims usually entails breaking down their denial of their emotions. Greg Hasek, executive director of the Misty Mountain Family Counseling Center in Portland, Oregon, organized the 2005 Men’s Summit on PAS in Kansas City, Missouri, where he helped create the Men and Abortion Network, a men’s PAS task force. He is one of the men’s PAS speakers making the rounds, including in San Francisco, and with his fast talk and in-your-face manner, his approach is an awful lot like that of a used car salesman.
Since 2001 Hasek has seen thirty-five to forty men a week. He says he is now testing his hypothesis that postabortion men are at increased risk for sexual addiction. “What the pornographers in this country and the abortionists in this country don’t want us to do is put the dots together,” he proclaimed. Luckily, Hasek will do that for us. If a man walks into his clinic, the counselor explained, that client fills out a form that includes a question about abortion. That’s step one: since half the men who fill out this form, says Hasek, have abortion in their past, he’s got a pretty large population to work on. The next step is getting over denial about the abortion’s impact. There are a lot of ways to do this. Sometimes he asks the man to draw a picture of what the aborted child might have looked like today. If that doesn’t work, he plays sentimental music. “Guys can’t withstand it,” he told the conference; they cry. And if that doesn’t work, he might take the guy to a playground and ask him to think about how old the child would be, to see if the guy can “connect” to his grief that way.
It’s hard to get past the sheer fabrications — of data and emotions — that are going on in the men’s PAS movement. But the bigger picture is worth seeing: PAS is a political strategy masquerading as a psychological crisis. And men’s PAS is that and then some.
That’s because in addition to suffering from the effects of abortion, postabortive men are also suffering from the effects of feminism. The clues to this culture-war agenda are hidden throughout the men’s PAS materials. The San Francisco conference was speckled with references to being “politically incorrect” with a sort of glee at confronting the culture head-on; it was filled with oblique references to what the women’s movement has done to men’s emotional lives — a grown-up version of Christina Hoff Sommers’s The War Against Boys. Did you know, for instance, that the form of women’s healing is a “bowl,” while the form of men’s healing is a “spear”? (Subtle, this.) Or that women heal through communication, while men heal through action? Because of the protocols of modern therapy, the story goes, men are essentially battered into women’s ways of healing, and they are deprived of an outlet for true healing.
More important, the men’s PAS healers share with their colleagues in the broader men’s movement a distinct sense that on parental issues, the legal system is stacked against them. “When it comes to reproduction in America today,” wrote fathers’ rights columnist Glenn Sacks about a man’s failed bid to block his ex-girlfriend’s abortion, “women have rights and men merely have responsibilities.” It is the most common lament of men’s rights activists: if a woman decides to have a child, a man must support her for eighteen years, but if a woman decides not to have a child, through abortion, a man has no say. “With the widespread acceptance of abortion,” declared Rue in San Francisco, “equality is aborted.”
But the movement finds itself in a bit of a muddle when it comes to figuring out what to do about this double standard. Men’s rights activists have mainly worked on issues with born children: custody rights, child support. The issue of men’s reproductive rights is more complicated. It took the spotlight briefly a few years ago, when Dalton Conley, then-director of New York University’s Center for Advanced Social Science Research, argued on the op-ed page of the New York Times, “If a father is willing to legally commit to raising a child with no help from the mother he should be able to obtain an injunction against the abortion of the fetus he helped create.” (One prominent fathers’ rights lawyer, Jeffery Leving, did persuade an Illinois judge some years back “to enjoin a pregnant woman from removing a child from the state’s jurisdiction.” In other words, the judge forbade the abortion.)
This is, of course, the most radical possible direction, one that seems blind to the problem of forcing women to be vessels for unwanted children. It also raises a problem for the antiabortion crowd. Says Baier of the Fatherhood Forever Foundation, “If you are going to give men the right to prevent it [abortion], you are also going to give men the right to force it.” Mel Feit, director of The National Center for Men, proposes to resolve that conundrum with what he calls a “Roe v. Wade for men.” Feit, who describes himself as prochoice, believes that when a man and woman have agreed not to have children and a woman becomes pregnant, a man should have, within a week or ten days, the opportunity to relinquish, through the courts, his rights and responsibilities to be a parent to that child, just as a woman has the opportunity to end her potential parenthood through abortion.
While men’s rights and PAS activists work out this rights puzzle, however, there is a more overtly politicized effort with regard to men’s PAS in the works: the collection of legally valid declarations, sometimes notarized, from men and women telling their postabortion stories. The Texas-based Operation Outcry spearheaded this effort among women starting in 2004, and hundreds of these testimonies were entered into the legislative hearings in South Dakota and almost every other state that has considered an abortion ban in the past several years, as well as in court cases around the country. It is now collecting men’s affidavits as well. “The Supreme Court is listening!” the project’s website reads. “Help us collect a million declarations so we can show the Supreme Court how many have been hurt by abortion.”
After the Carhart decision, Yale University law professor Jack Balkin blogged that thanks to the Kennedy opinion, “the new rhetoric of pro-life forces is no longer just rhetoric. It’s now part of Supreme Court doctrine.” In fact, the collection project specifically cites Kennedy’s comment that there are “no reliable data” on PAS and states that the “most effective way to show the Court the magnitude of the problem is to collect a much larger number of testimonies.”
Beyond men, PAS is becoming a family affair. There’s some talk of PAS for siblings, otherwise known as Post-Abortion Survivor Syndrome, which is said to mimic guilt and fear suffered by Holocaust survivors. A combination of these emotions, writes Philip Ney, a prominent antiabortion researcher, “may result in angry, narcissistic, destructive young people. There are millions of abortion survivors who are all too ready to destroy or be destroyed.” Ney and others are also working on PAS for grandparents who, “having aborted some of their children or having urged their children to abort…[will] have a deep fear of retaliation.”
Suddenly, using nothing but anecdote framed in scientific forms, a single abortion has not one victim, or even two, but three or four or five. And beyond that, millions of abortions have millions of victims: one in four women, and by extension one in four men, and one in four parents, and countless children, until society itself is a victim, filled with all sorts of personal and interpersonal tragedies of divorce, drug use and suicide from which we — all Americans — need protection.
And that becomes a justification for many things: for banning abortion; for spousal notification laws, currently deemed unconstitutional (though the new Supreme Court, in a new political climate, could change that); for compelling women to hear fabricated dangers in the name of “informed consent”; for coercing women into carrying children they do not wish to bear; even for murder — the very kind of violent strategy that had seemed to be replaced by the empathetic stance of PAS.
In a surreal moment in San Francisco in November, Vincent Rue interwove his compassionate PowerPoint presentation on the suffering of the hollow men with a strange selection of text that flashed brightly on a black screen. It read: “‘He was upset because it was his child and he was not consulted. It just broke him. When he found out about it, it just flipped him out.’ —Emaline Kopp, Stepmother of James Kopp who killed NY abortion provider Dr. Slepian.”
Now we understand. Pity the man.
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.