Men On How Abortion Changed Their Lives

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
"I didn’t really feel like I had a right to feel any kind of outward emotion about it," 35-year-old Jon Pollock, a health and safety manager in civil construction, is telling me. There’s a tangible apprehension in his voice – he’s choosing words carefully – because we’re talking about something that he’s only shared with three other people in the last decade. Something that is not for his kind, if you listen to public discourse. 
"I feel like I’m intruding on something that isn’t mine to talk about," he says, suddenly. 
We’re talking about abortion. 
There are good reasons why men aren’t often involved in the public conversations that surround this issue. One is that women’s long battle for basic bodily autonomy has, more often than not, been fought against them. 
In the 19th century, male physicians in the US staged a successful campaign to criminalise abortion which, until that point, had been a legal and widely practised procedure. Abortion was legal for centuries in the UK, too, following church teaching that terminations were acceptable until what was known as 'quickening', or the point when a woman could feel a foetus move. 
Then in 1861 it was outlawed with the introduction of a new law: the Offences Against the Person Act. But of course, unwanted pregnancies didn’t disappear. 
As maternal deaths due to illegal abortion rose, the case for legalising the procedure grew. Control over fertility and reproductive rights became part of the women’s movement and, eventually, in 1967, the women speaking out for those who had lost their lives or livelihoods prevailed. The Abortion Act was introduced and set a precedent that lingers: that abortion is, by and large, a 'women's issue'. 
Lately, there has been some cause for (conservative) celebration on this side of the world when it comes to abortion. Last year Ireland's historic referendum decriminalised the procedure and this week, finally, Northern Ireland – where abortion laws are among the most restrictive in the world – followed suit, after an amendment introduced by Labour MP Stella Creasy in Westminster. 
Still, we’re far from the finish line. In countries like El Salvador, where abortion has been outlawed since 1998, and the US, where the campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade continues, we appear to be losing ground. Perhaps it’s not unrelated, then, that the call for men to add their voices to the movement is getting louder. 

I listened to what she wanted and made sure I was responding to her, mostly. It takes two to make a pregnancy. I felt responsible.

joN, 35
"I haven’t spoken about this out loud for, I suspect, seven years or so – since I told my now wife," Jon continues. His (now ex-)girlfriend of four years became pregnant when he was 24 and she was 22, while they were studying at university in northeast England. 
"I was in the pub when I found out," he continues. "I went outside for a smoke, went home, and we decided that night it wasn’t right for us to have a baby. There were lots of factors – my ex was just about to start the postgraduate nursing degree and had her whole career ahead of her, we weren’t financially sound and the relationship had been difficult at times." 
"I listened to what she wanted and made sure I was responding to her, mostly. My main concern was that I didn’t want to make it any harder on my partner than it already was. It takes two to make a pregnancy. I felt responsible."
Similarly, 34-year-old Joe* felt responsible when his ex-partner became pregnant in 2008. "And more than that, I felt uneducated I suppose," he explains. "I understand that men have, historically, been central in decision-making around abortion, to say the least. I guess there’s a bit of shame about it and then this learned behaviour that it’s women’s business – not something for men to get involved in. But my life would have been very different if we lived in a country that didn’t allow abortion." 
We’re comfortable with discussing the powerful impact of abortion rights on women. The legalisation of abortion in Britain has changed – and undoubtedly saved – millions of women’s lives. But men’s lives and their futures have been positively altered by it too. We just don’t talk about it. 

My life would have been very different if we lived in a country that didn't allow abortion.

Joe, 34
Last year a record number of abortions were carried out in England and Wales. More than 200,000 documented terminations went ahead – the increase ascribed partly to government-sanctioned closures of sexual health clinics across the country and benefits reforms – and government data shows that 81% of those were carried out on single (unmarried) women. Which means, presumably, that a similar number of men were affected by this issue last year, too. Do they feel that their voices should be added to this conversation? 
"It’s about human rights, really, isn’t it?" says Ollie*, 32. "While I believe that it’s a woman’s body and a woman’s choice, it takes two to tango. If you want to benefit from the right to choose, and have a say in how your future looks, you have to take 50% of the responsibility."
Ollie has been through two abortions with two women, one while at university, aged 21, and one with his ex-wife, seven years later. Both occurred due to having unprotected sex. He acknowledges now that contraception is a shared responsibility – not just for the woman to "look after" – but in the past simply assumed that the person he was sleeping with was protected against pregnancy. Both of his relationships ended in the months after the procedure; Ollie says that he regrets not being there physically for the first abortion and emotionally for either woman during the process. "They are both very strong, very independent women," he tells me. "In the second instance, I’d never really seen my ex need me in such a visceral way. I was juggling a lot of other emotional responsibilities and I was distracted." 

I didn't know who to turn to – if I could go back, I'd have talked to my dad, or someone older with more perspective or emotional maturity, for advice.

Ollie, 32
"I didn’t know who to turn to – if I could go back, I’d have talked to my dad, or someone older with more perspective or emotional maturity, for advice," Ollie reflects.
"In both incidences abortion seemed to force us, as individuals and as a couple, to confront wider issues: were we right for each other, long term, or did both of us want children at all? My wife had been unsure before we got married, though I always wanted kids. Getting pregnant confirmed for her that she didn’t. It’s quite a traumatic thing to go through, in my opinion. Perhaps that’s because we’re taught not to talk about it. We should." 
"I know that [my ex and I] were privileged in many ways," Jon says. "My experience of it wasn’t great, being honest. My partner and I barely talked and I found our time at the hospital coldly clinical – especially for my ex, who was very upset." 
"But we had the choice – we had safe access to medical services that we needed. We were able to move forward with our lives in a positive way and have children when we were both ready – financially, emotionally – and in the right relationship."
"I’ll always support the right to choose for that reason," he adds. "And I do think that men can add a lot to the conversation in a very positive way, just by saying that out loud. I think it’s the woman’s choice since it’s her body. But abortion rights are good for all of society."

For me there's no shame talking about abortion, but I can see why there might be for other men. We're not encouraged to talk about our emotions, let alone emotions mixed up with politicised issues such as this.

Jonathan, 41
Forty-one-year-old Jonathan Paige, a freelance writer, agrees. He had been seeing someone for just a couple of weeks when she became pregnant, around five years ago. The woman had been taking contraception regularly, but it failed. 
"For me there’s no shame around talking about abortion," he says, "but I can see why there might be for other men. Especially as we’re not encouraged to talk about our emotions, let alone emotions mixed up with politicised issues such as this." 
How did Jonathan feel about the abortion itself? 
"I’m grateful that the woman I was seeing was able to have an abortion, though it will always ultimately be the woman’s right to choose," he says, carefully. "It just seemed like the right choice for where we both were in our lives but she took the news very hard. She was around 29 and suffered from depression, so this really affected her mental health. It wasn’t an easy time. She asked me if I would stay with her if she kept the baby and I said I couldn’t guarantee that – we barely knew each other. I didn’t feel equipped to give her the emotional support that she needed. I definitely felt like there should have been more services available to her. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help her – and if it happened to me again I think I’d deal with the situation differently."
While there are too many male voices to count at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement, there are too few on the other side. As a result, says Joe, men aren’t actively thinking about the positive ways in which abortion rights affect them. 
Ollie, who is now engaged and looking forward to starting a family in the next few years, agrees. "I can’t imagine what it would have been like to go through that in a country that didn’t allow abortion," he says. "It would have been exponentially more difficult and traumatic [to terminate the pregnancy] – or I would have two children now, with people who just weren’t right for me. The women I was with would have had their lives irrevocably changed, too, not only having a child they didn’t want but also with a man they didn’t want to be with." 
He adds, reflectively: "Abortion rights mean that now I can start a family of my own, in the right circumstances. That’s not something to ever take for granted."
Please sign our petition and help us change the law to fix abortion provision once and for all.
*Some names have been changed.

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