What Abortion Means to Me

I’m a guy. So I’ve never been pregnant, never worried about being pregnant, and never had to decide whether I should have an abortion.

But I’ve also been married for … it’ll be 28 years next month. So it annoys me when reproductive rights gets consigned (along with breast cancer, day care, and equal pay) to the special ghetto of “women’s issues”. If you take marriage seriously, you live in the same ghetto your wife does — especially when it comes to reproduction. Because if your wife has a child, you have a child. That’s how it works.

Here’s how it worked for us: In the early years of our marriage, we figured we would become parents eventually, but not yet. In the short run, we wanted to focus on establishing ourselves in the world, so that later, as more mature parents, we could give our children a better life.

Later, as we began to wonder whether eventually would ever be now, we went through a more focused decision process: Were we going to have children or not?

We decided not. (Being a writer, I described that process here and revisited it here when our friends’ kids started graduating from high school.) Children are wonderful and we were glad that so many of our friends were having them, but we liked the lives we were living. We still do.

Even if we had chosen to have a child, we’d have faced another decision about having a second one, or a third, because each child is a new roll of the dice. You can’t predict who this little person is going to turn out to be or how s/he will change your household. (If you think your brilliant parenting will determine the matter, you’re kidding yourself.)

Children arrive with no warranty and no return policy. Downs syndrome is on my wife’s family tree, and autism is something you always have to think about. One of the bridesmaids at our wedding had a perfectly healthy child, who was then killed by a drunk driver. My parents lived next to a family whose teen-age son suffered a brain-damaging accident. They will have to care for him for the rest of their lives, and what happens if he outlives them is unclear.

In short, having a child means risking whatever you thought you were going to do with your life. And each additional child risks not just your own life, but the life you can provide for your other children. That’s why any responsible couple — no matter how satisfying they find parenthood to be — is eventually going to say, “No. It’s time to quit while we’re ahead.”

[I suppose I need to address the people who “trust in the Lord” to decide how many children they will raise. To me, that makes as much sense as snake-handling or strolling through a lion’s den because Daniel got away with it. Look around: People who trust in the Lord get slammed by disaster at the same rate as anybody else who takes similar risks. So I’ll repeat: Any responsible couple …]

Those two reasons — wanting to delay having children until you can provide a better life for them, and wanting to protect the life you have already made — are why almost every couple practices birth control at some point in their marriage. (The only people who can’t see the logic here are priests who can’t get married. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.)

Once you’ve made that decision, you quickly realize that no form of birth control is foolproof. Surgery isn’t an option if you just want to delay parenthood, and is a gamble in general, because your circumstances may change. Even celibacy fails, because you can’t rule out rape.

So we came to this strategy: We practiced birth control faithfully, and planned to get an abortion if it failed. As it happened, we lucked out and never had to get that abortion.

Would we have followed through? I don’t know. I think that’s a situation you can’t fully imagine until you get there. But in any case, the decision would have been ours to make, and not the government’s to make for us. If we had changed our minds and decided to have the baby, our decision would have transformed an “accident” into a wanted child. Having chosen to raise him or her, I believe we would have been better, more loving parents than if we had felt trapped.

Are there moral consequences to choosing abortion? Yes, I believe there are. But I imagine them differently than anti-abortion extremists do. I hold a newly fertilized ovum in very light regard (as Nature — which spontaneously aborts so many of them — seems to). I believe that a fetus’ moral value grows with time, which gives a couple a responsibility to decide about abortion promptly, and steadily raises the decision bar as the pregnancy continues. Eventually, as birth approaches, only the life of the mother is a good enough reason to abort.

These are my own moral intuitions (which my wife largely shares) and yours may be different. But if we had taken action based on them, I would have expected everyone else to mind their own business. I see no justification for any outsider’s morality to have trumped ours.

So that’s what abortion has meant to me as a married man. My wife and I took responsibility for our childbearing. Without the possibility of abortion, we could not have done so.

We are now past the childbearing age. But I hope that those couples who are fertile today will also take responsibility for their childbearing. I believe that collectively they will raise saner, healthier children if they do, and that our society will be better for it. I also want today’s couples to have at least as much control over their lives as we had. And so, for both social and personal reasons, I want abortion to remain legal.

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  • Gretchen Robinson  On February 13, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    thanks for an honest post. I agree with your choices. My husband and I adopted a son, now 41, whom we love, of course. If I had it to do again, I would have stayed child-free. Course this is 20-20 hindsight. We met his birthmother and know how she suffered because he was raised by strangers. Her parents were military and forced her to go away and give him up for adoption. All this over-determined and limited her life, too, in ways I won’t go into here.

    Am reading Maybe One by Bill McKibben for an essay I am writing on overpopulation and how women are conditioned to bear children as an inner mandate that has been enculturated into them.

    My sister never had children and now is SO glad she didn’t. We agree that just keeping life simple and just taking care of ourselves, keeping stable, keeping sane in a crazy world is quite enough.

    Thanks for the clarity and insights here. More men should write in this vein.

    Gretchen Robinson

  • Gretchen Robinson  On February 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Check out

    The Potent Spell by Janna Malamud Smith. “A fervent examination of the powerful, visceral anxiety of mothers…and of its exploitation by experts and authorities.” The RC Bishops are counting on women to automatically support their anti-birth control ideology. This time, I hope they get the wakeup call they so sorely need.

  • Addie Seabarkrob  On February 14, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Can’t help but think this whole kerfuffle is a distraction as it often is from the bigger issues: the economy, healthcare, etc.

  • Kim Cooper  On February 15, 2012 at 1:55 am

    I agree with your post completely. I want to add a different perspective on abortion: My partner and I took a course on how to do ultrasound. she did a lengthy internship at a place that did second level ultrasound (that means the doctor who did the first ultrasound wasn’t sure what he was looking at or didn’t want to tell the patient himself or herself, so he sends the patient to the “experts”). Sometimes they did an ultrasound and found a fetus that wasn’t viable — the one I am thinking of was a fetus with no skull and the brains disorganized and free-floating in the amniotic fluid. When my partner saw that, she said nothing but called the doctor in. When he told the patient and her husband, she became hysterical, as she had wanted a baby, and she was going to have to have an abortion to protect her own health in this case. Later, the doctor told my partner that they see about one of month of that kind of case. Another patient she had, she found that the fetus was dead, and had been for almost two weeks. These are the kinds of cases where you think — what if abortion was completely illegal? What would they do in this kind of case? Why would a religious person insist that an abortion still wasn’t the right thing to do? What are they thinking?

  • Anonymous  On February 16, 2012 at 9:18 am

    I appreciate the little comment about “quitting while your ahead”. I share this sentiment and always felt that we were so lucky to have two healthy intelligent sons. Nothing is guaranteed and we followed the same logic as you described. It would have been a blessing to have a third, but also a gamble that I couldn’t stomach.

  • Skulander  On November 14, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    Great post! Yes, abortion is a complicated matter. This post outlined them neatly. And it’s ALSO precisely why the government shouldn’t make such personal, private decisions for other people.


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