A Father’s Tears
The brochure is celestial blue with wafting clouds. Its cover is darkest, suggesting a lowering storm; each successive panel grows lighter. The logo is a dove. Last week’s two-day San Francisco conference “Reclaiming Fatherhood: A Multifaceted Examination of Men Dealing with Abortion” clearly hoped to move men in a heavenly direction.
But the presentations’ titles — “Forgiveness Therapy with Post-Abortion Men”; “Trauma and Abortion: When Men Hollow”; “The Masculine Side of Healing” — hint at the first task facing this gathering and the crusade of which it is part: to make men feel hurt by abortion.
“Reclaiming Men,” which was organized by the National Organization of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing (NOPARH) and funded by the Catholic Knights of Columbus and the San Francisco Archdiocese, was billed as the inauguration of a new anti-abortion ministry — the rescue of “male victims of abortion.” Announced at the National Right to Life convention in June, the campaign is already gaining steam. YouTube features several anti-abortion videos aimed at men, which share an elegiac tone and a heavy reliance on fade-ins and fade-outs. Many anti-choice websites now include sections on “other victims” of abortion, besides the fetus and the woman. According to NOPARH, the would-be baby’s siblings experience survivor guilt; cousins, aunts and uncles grieve. Even friends of an aborting woman may turn inward or engage in “serious risk-taking behavior,” hauling around “a burden of concern” for years.
The addition of men to the casualty list is only the most recent stroke in a broader anti-choice strategy. After a decade of equivocal progress using a sin-and-punishment rhetoric, the Christian Right took a page from modern psychology: They translated sin into psychological illness, trading in a punitive tone for a compassionate one.
Thus, in 1981, a new affliction was born — “post-abortion syndrome,” or PAS, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder following abortion. Its symptoms include anxiety, depression, flashbacks and suicide. If women before were made to feel bad — ashamed and guilty — about having abortions, PAS allowed them to feel only sad. No longer murderers, they were now the victims of a murderous society that places expediency and economic gain above the welfare of women, children and families. If you remove the Right’s named perpetrator of this immorality — feminists — it’s a cultural critique not unlike feminism’s.
The “discovery” of PAS dovetailed with the construction by conservative evangelicals of a sort of parallel universe to the secular practice of psychotherapy. Within a church movement that stresses a direct, emotional relationship with God, Christian counselors applied to troubles from adolescent disaffection to sexual dissatisfaction a mixture of New Age philosophies, addictionology, Bible study and prayer, as well as conventional psychological techniques and language. Many secular therapists, especially psychoanalysts, eschew connecting their patients’ distress to phenomena outside the self or the family — medicalization, the view that psychological problems result from chemical or hormonal imbalances, is the most extreme form of this trend. Yet Christian therapists have no trouble diagnosing their clients’ misery as symptoms of the social and moral scourges they are politically committed to eradicating: pornography, “promiscuity,” feminism, homosexuality and abortion.
Already, “pornography addiction” and the “disorder” of homosexuality could pull men into their offices, but post-abortion syndrome lay more or less outside the male psyche. If a kinder, gentler approach worked with women, why not exonerate men, too, who were long portrayed by anti-choice forces as seducer-abandoners abetted by abortion law?
Like loaves and fishes, the books, workshops and weekend retreats with the words men, abortion, and healing in their titles began to multiply.
Post-abortion syndrome is not a medically recognized disorder. The American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association do not recognize it, and PAS is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In fact, a large body of data strongly refutes the notion that abortion raises the risk of depression, drug abuse or any other psychological problem any more than does having an unwanted pregnancy — or, for that matter, a baby.?
Still, grief is historical. In medieval times, parents did not generally grieve the death of human infants, since so many babies died. Could they have predicted the proliferation of 21st-century “pet-loss grief support” institutions, including funeral homes, where Americans mourn the deaths of their dogs and fish as profoundly as those of their parents? Grief is permitted — you might say encouraged — within certain cultural contexts. Research shows that women whose religions condemn abortion — and one in five pregnancy-terminators fall into this category — are most likely to suffer psychologically afterwards. Even if PAS is caused by the Vatican and not by vacuum aspiration, it is real for some women.
Will men agree to succumb to post-abortion syndrome? Their numbers on marches and in clinic-bombing arrests indicate that men constitute a substantial portion of anti-abortion activists. But the role they play is heroic, manly: protecting innocent women and children from the evil abortion merchants. Victimization, on the other hand, is feminine; even grief is a little sissified.
The lost-fatherhood ministers seem to have thought through this gender problem. “These guys are in crisis,” Gregory Hasek, a licensed family therapist and director of the Misty Mountain Counseling Center in Portland, Oregon, told the Right to Life convention about the men in his practice. “They don’t hold up signs saying, ‘Hi, I’m post-abortion,’ but one of the pains in their lives is abortion.”
That pain, Hasek implied, is related to the theft of their masculinity. “God created the need for men to get up and care for women and children,” he continued. “Women look to men for decisions. Women often equate sex with love and choose love from a man over having a child.” In other words, sensing the man doesn’t want a child, a woman may choose to abort — and that implicates the man in the sin of killing the fetus.
If the woman ends the pregnancy without consulting him, the man can suffer PAS without guilt — and in a hairy-chested way. “Men use anger as a way of processing grief,” explained Hasek, who was also a headliner at “Reclaiming Fatherhood.” “Abortion makes a lot of men angry, and the men who are kept out of the decision are the angriest. They need to talk about what it would have meant for them to have had the child.”
Reporting on Hasek’s talk in the newsletter of the think tank Political Research Associates, Eleanor Bader noted, “To hear him . . . tell it, the country is filled with men longing to be fathers” and “deadbeat dads are rare birds.”
In this, the lost-fatherhood ministry is like the rest of the men’s movement, whether the guys are singing hymns with the Promise Keepers or beating drums with Robert Bly. Aside from a few pro-feminists, not many talk about their brothers on the lam. More commonly, they resent the bad rap the deadbeats give men in general, which they believe accounts for an unjust pro-mother bias in divorce court. Even if men want custody of their children, say “father’s rights” activists, judges won’t give it to them. And the epitome of fatherhood denied is abortion unilaterally procured.
Although conservative Christians male and female claim never to have met a baby, born or unborn, whom they didn’t want to take home, other men’s rights activists are equally peeved about the opposite situation: Legally powerless to intercede in a woman’s decision to bring a pregnancy to term, men are nevertheless held to paying child support once the kid is born. Writer Cathy Young summarized this concern: “Women have reproductive rights, and men have reproductive responsibilities.”
Considering this asymmetry in 2005, Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum floated a proposal: “If abortion is to remain legal and relatively unrestricted — and I believe it should — why shouldn’t men have the right during at least the first trimester of pregnancy to terminate their legal and financial rights and responsibilities to the child?” This sounds reasonable to me, if the man could prove in court that he hadn’t been with the program at the start and only belatedly got cold feet.
The scant research on the subject suggests that, at least within committed couples, most decisions to have or not have a baby are made jointly. But the law protects rights and apportions responsibility when consensus can’t be reached. Who decides? That is the fundamental question of abortion law and, by extension, about having children, too. Daum did not dream up her opt-out clause randomly; Samuel Alito was undergoing his Supreme Court confirmation hearings at the time, and she was responding to his opinion, as a circuit court judge, that spousal consent for abortion was OK.
Thinking about Alito, the lost fathers of Christendom start to make me nervous. What happens when they no longer feel satisfied with a therapeutic shoulder to cry on? When reclaiming fatherhood turns toward legal efforts to reclaim fathers’ “God-given role” of family patriarch?
We pro-choicers are absolutists for a reason: Abortion law is all about slippery slopes. So let’s imagine sliding, shall we? The Roberts court rules spousal consent constitutional. After a while, an unmarried boyfriend sues, claiming unequal protection, and boyfriend consent gets the go-ahead, followed by sperm-donor consent. Eventually, Roe is overturned. Doctors — and maybe women, too — are convicted of murdering fetuses. Judges start adding years to their sentences based on the victim impact statements of bereaved fathers. Then legislatures encode payback for paternal grief in mandatory minima. The scarcity and danger of illegal abortion increase.
And, once again, women’s bodies are crushed under the law of the father.