Finding himself faced with his partner's unplanned pregnancy, today's man may well be confronted for the first time with a situation in which his opinions and beliefs carry less weight than those of his female partner. In absence of a critical day-to-day assessment of their gender-based privilege and power, privileged men rarely find themselves pushed to recognize the negative effects of their power on the lives of others. So when men create an anti-abortion movement that turns a woman's decision to have an abortion into a story of male victimization and loss of fatherhood, their reaction is understandable — and even predictable.
But the men who claim that they have been victimized by abortion were not powerless to prevent their circumstances. When a couple uses contraception, they make an implicit agreement that they are not ready to be pregnant. For a man to not be ready to face these decisions, have unprotected sex, and then be upset with his partner for having obtained an abortion and deprived him of his reproductive rights is totally contradictory.
These arguments should in no way delegitimize the suffering that men may feel. Abortion can be a difficult experience, but it is one that women should always have the choice to make. No, men cannot have the final say on their partners' decisions. But they can assert their ability to be knowledgeable and supportive both before and after an abortion. Men can spread a positive message of partnership in decision-making. Masculinity does not have to entail a man making the final decisions in a relationship and giving up his personal aspirations to care for his child. Instead, being strong can mean that a man is willing to discuss family planning with his partner so that when pregnancy occurs, it will be intended, and he will be ready to support the family that he helped to create.
Reproductive responsibility has long been considered to be a woman's task — but men are deeply affected by the pregnancy-related decisions women make. Abortion decisions have been considered anecdotally to affect the social, emotional, and physical health of men, especially when men are not considered valuable enough to even hear about the decision making process. As seen from November's "Reclaiming Fatherhood" conference in San Francisco, California, which gathered more than a hundred grief-stricken men who had been directly or indirectly involved in abortions, men do want to play a larger part in reproductive decision making — even if they intend to allow only one option to women and therefore no decision at all. We can sympathize for men who have not had the opportunity to show a more compassionate and supportive side such that their partners would have more likely noticed their potential to both be helpful husbands and unfailing fathers, but we cannot overlook the fact that these sensitivities among men are late in coming. The majority of men seem to want to become part of pregnancy decisions only after having had unprotected sex, and without ever having previously considered their partners' desires to be pregnant with their genetic offspring — or to be pregnant at all.
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Male Involvement in Birth Control and Family Planning
Can men be blamed for sitting back and letting women take the lead in handling birth control? Biology has never forced men to bear the consequences of pregnancy. Nor has our society also asked men to shoulder this burden. The 2005 Debt Reductions Act reduced federal funding for state-run child support enforcement agencies – so men have been with even fewer reasons to be sexually and socially responsible. Meanwhile, the Child Support Protection Act of 2007 has stalled. But even the paternalistic US government is not solely to blame for men playing too small a part in the prevention of unplanned pregnancy. Medical research has been slow to provide contraceptive options for men and because many men assume that women have already secured a birth control method of their own, they have not demanded them for themselves. Current options that men have to prevent pregnancy are limited to condoms, periodic abstinence, withdrawal, and vasectomy — and these options are woefully inadequate, when compared to options available to women. Yet even if there existed a better birth control option for men, the difficulties public health organizations have had convincing men to use condoms belie a more desperate situation, in which, for many men, possible consequences of sexual activity are considered only after sex takes place.
But men can do better and women should expect this of them. One simple and very concrete way men can take more responsibility for reproductive health and family planning has been made possible by the FDA approval of over-the-counter provision of emergency contraception.
Male Access to Emergency Contraception
If ever there was a perfect time for men to band together against a loss of fatherhood, that time is now — with their demand for access to emergency contraception. Those who feel that they have been hurt by abortion have more reason than anyone else to spread knowledge of Plan B and support its widespread provision to men.
Men who have not been responsible enough to find out if their partners want to create an environment fit for raising a child may not be ready to be fathers. If men want to reclaim fatherhood, they need reclaim partnership first. To reclaim partnership, they need to take reproductive responsibility into their own hands, before becoming sexually active.
In August 2006, the FDA approved of Plan B as an over-the-counter emergency contraceptive option for women age 18 and up. But not until December of the same year did the FDA clarify that Plan B could be sold to men aged 18 and over for personal provision to women. While a publicity buzz accompanied the monumental status change of August of 2006, the access for men that came five months later has been inadequately emphasized, both to the demanding public and dispensing pharmacists. Neglecting male involvement as an asset for family planning can only worsen problematic behaviors that studies have already identified: that men tend not to concern themselves with pregnancy until after being involved in unprotected sexual encounters. If men can be made aware of this post-coital method, they may have an opportunity to become partners for the prevention of unplanned pregnancy.
Men can share the financial burden of Plan B, be advocates of Plan B usage, become knowledgeable resources on where to obtain Plan B, and defend women against any social stigma entailed in pursuit of emergency contraception. The added male resources and support of women are especially important considering that a 2005 survey of university students showed that almost half of students believed that Plan B was the same as RU-486 (the "abortion pill") and 100% of students felt that they would feel embarrassed or judged when asking for it. For some men, being acknowledged during his partner's concern over a possible unplanned pregnancy can also prevent a feeling of alienation from what has been socially considered a woman's responsibility.
As Plan B is most effective (89%) within 72 hours of unprotected sexual intercourse, with effectiveness decreasing with each moment after initiation of unprotected intercourse, a male ally can access Plan B when his partner is unaware of its existence, is at work, incapacitated, financially unable, or underage, and this could be significant for the prevention of unplanned pregnancy. Doubling the population of knowledgeable buyers of emergency contraception through the recruitment of men could go a long way in preventing unplanned pregnancies – in addition to the negative feelings entailed by abortion decisions.
In spite of the substantial promise of this role for men, cases have been reported of men being turned away from their purchase attempts at pharmacies. Along with pharmacists who have opted not to sell Plan B in general, there are pharmacists who, either as a result of a lack of education or an unfounded bias against male intentions, continue to limit the sale of Plan B. Men trying to buy for their partners or buy before having sex for "just in case" moments where condoms break have been turned away when unable to prove the age of their partners. Although the prevalence of denial to men has never been surveyed, its existence is alarming enough. For each man who is denied a chance to participate in family planning interventions, society loses its chance at creating a population of enlightened men, cognizant of their capability and responsibility to women and their future or present families.
A Role for Men That Supports Women
The plea for the assessment of male feelings of sadness and regret after his partner's abortion is not unwarranted. But men cannot appeal for this assessment without understanding the negative effects that male-directed decisions can have upon women. To equate the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy on men with the consequences for their female partners is untenable. Rather than taking away from women for their own gain, men should try to think of a role for themselves that supports both parties. Sex and the creation of a family should be based on love. Men may say that they love their partners, but when they become part of a movement that aims to deprive their partners of a freedom to pursue life as they themselves do, that is not love. Though men may find it difficult to accept a woman's ownership of her own body without having prior been aware of any other form of gender discrimination, men need come to understand a new role for themselves in today's society. As advocates for Plan B, male contraception, the inclusion of male perspectives in family planning, and better sexual health education, men today can ensure a more productive and loving relationship with women in the future.
Photo By: Steve Todey
To start reclaiming fatherhood, contact your local pharmacy to find out if they will provide Plan B to men. Researchers at Brown Medical School in Rhode Island have already begun a survey of male access to Plan B and would be interested to hear more about your experiences with access and thoughts about how men can be supportively involved in reproductive decisions. Send an email to [email protected]