Commentary Abortion

Yes, Abortion Is a Women’s Issue, and Yes, More Male Allies Are Welcome

Erin Matson

In response to the recent discussion about a "bro-choice" movement, I'd like to offer a defense of continuing to talk about abortion as a women's issue, and pointers for how men can be supportive as allies within that frame.

Access to legal abortion is a human rights issue, a public health issue, and yes, in part a women’s issue. Do we need more pro-choice men in the reproductive rights movement? The answer is yes.

A recent Rewire piece by Andrew Jenkins calling for a “bro-choice” movement—men supporting reproductive and sexual rights—nailed a number of key points, including that men are also subject to reproductive oppression, and individuals who don’t identify as women, such as transgender men, may also need access to abortion. His point, in part, was that restrictions on abortion and reproductive rights hurt everyone.

I’d like to take his excellent points a little further to apply a human rights and public health lens in looking at how men also are harmed by restrictions on reproductive rights. I’d also like to offer a defense of continuing to talk about abortion as a women’s issue, and pointers for how men can be supportive as allies within that frame.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Hillary Rodham Clinton, taking a page from decades-long work of women’s groups worldwide, reconfirmed at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” This statement declares commonality, intersection, and overlap without declaring sameness. This provides an instructive blueprint for the inclusion of more “bro-choice” men in a broader discussion about human rights.

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Reproductive rights includes the right to have children and the right not to have children free from coercion or control, which is among the most fundamental of human rights. Yes, these human rights extend to men, who experience a violation of self-determination when forced to undergo involuntary sterilization, or when forced, with a partner, to relinquish a pregnancy to a one-child policy, or when they encounter ideologically constructed legal barriers to accessing safe contraception.

While such policies affect men, that doesn’t obviate the fact that, overwhelmingly, it’s women’s human rights that are denied by restrictions on reproductive rights. Women’s human rights are at the center of the pro-choice movement.

Restrictions on reproductive rights increase maternal mortality, which kills women. Restrictions on abortion rights force women who would otherwise live through an unsustainable pregnancy, to die in hospitals (take, for example, Savita Halappanavar and the tens of thousands of other women who die each year from unsafe abortions around the world). Restrictions on access to contraception force women to go without needed medical care. From a human rights perspective, there is no need to gloss over the word “women” when working deliberately to incorporate more men into the movement.

A similar argument extends to the public health realm. Safe, legal, and accessible abortion saves women’s lives and prevents injury and unnecessary medical expense. In the United States, every dollar invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they do not want saves nearly $4 in Medicaid expenditures that would have otherwise been needed. Public health concerns, like human rights concerns, affect men and women and everyone. We will sink or swim together.

In the very good enthusiasm to expand the conversation about abortion and reproductive rights to include more men and to incorporate more perspectives, sometimes we hear folks suggesting that we shouldn’t talk about abortion as a women’s issue. Let’s not allow an aspiration for greater inclusion to throw out reality and lived experiences. Abortion is a women’s issue. Pregnancy is a women’s issue. Reproductive control is a women’s issue. That they are also human rights and public health issues, that more people should be included, does not mean they are not women’s issues.

Part of being a good ally includes affirming the identity of the person at the center of the storm, of not insisting that they be homogenized to include the identities of those experiencing less oppression. This is so critical when we talk about women’s rights, and abortion rights specifically.

Being proud to assert abortion as a women’s issue, whether you identify as woman or man, doesn’t negate the fact that everyone has a stake in the struggle. It also doesn’t say women are a monolithic category or negate the need to address gaping health and wealth disparities experienced by women of color. It doesn’t stop explicit inclusion of men who are transgender and may also need abortions. It does help keep women’s health, and justice for women, and the need to address sexism and gender discrimination, at the center of conversation about abortion—which is sorely needed.

Another argument surfaces regularly that women’s rights advocates should back away from abortion and reproductive health care to make other advances for the greater good. This is naivete and wishful thinking. Pregnancy and family issues engage all facets of a woman’s life: her economic standing, her emotional well-being, her physical health, her social standing, and her spiritual beliefs, if she has them. A woman’s reproductive life doesn’t sit in a separate tray by itself.

Further, sexist assumptions about women’s role in reproduction are at the core of other oppressions women face. Rape culture is intertwined with ideas that men are irresistibly driven to sex, that women are submissive sexual objects to be conquered, that women are either sluts or prudes. Lack of family supports in the workplace, from paid sick days to paid family leave, are tied with exclusionary and outdated middle-class white assumptions that there will be a woman in the home to take care of the family, and discrimination in pay, promotion, and leadership is underpinned by assumptions that men are primary breadwinners. Pretending that social discrimination against women is not linked with sexual discrimination against women, which can therefore be ignored, may feel “less controversial” but it’s not going to get us anywhere.

When men are quoted in the media five times more often than women on the topics of abortion and birth control, we are simply not ready to move abortion into a post-gender framework that declares abortion is “not a women’s issue.” In particular, it seems that society has a great deal of resistance to putting younger women and women of color, not mutually exclusive categories, at the center of reproductive rights conversations.

While we need more men, more LGBTQ people, and more of everyone taking leadership in the reproductive rights movement, those most directly affected by abortion restrictions—younger women and women of color—need more focus, not less. Turn on the television, and it’s not uncommon to see a white man opposing abortion rights and, if a pro-choice woman is included at all, she is often white and past reproductive age.

Within the abortion rights movement, there is some resistance to having the most directly affected lead the message in a way that doesn’t seem to be paralleled in other human rights movements, including LGBTQ movements and civil rights movements. Some take offense when it is suggested that more younger women and women of color should help lead. This is something that I hope men will keep in mind when taking on leadership roles in the movement. It is possible to be a loud ally and also be an ally who works to ensure more young women and women of color are included, and your sisters need the help.

Do we need more men to fight for reproductive and sexual rights on their own terms? Do we welcome more men to fight for abortion as human rights issues, public health issues, and women’s issues? Is it cool if those men want to call themselves “bro-choice”? The answer is an enthusiastic yes.

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