Allyship used to mean people who shared a mutual interest or who faced a common threat, people who were pulling in the same direction as partners. But in the parlance of progressive activists, it now means someone who is willing to support tribes other than their own. Specifically, it means white people lining up behind Black people, straight people lining up behind queer people, and men lining up behind women. Allyship now means using your power and privilege in support of somebody else’s quest for power and privilege, by which I mean the kinds of privilege that are merited by all people: dignity, respect, sufficiency, freedom, and equality under the law. Members of the vulnerable tribe set the agenda, and allies follow their priorities and echo their words.
That is how we have been treating men in the abortion fight.
The problem is this fight doesn’t affect only women or people who can get pregnant. It affects us all. The goal of abortion access, just like the goal of contraception, and sex ed and marriage equality is this: All human adults should be able to form the families of their choosing at the times of their choosing with the partners of their choosing.
The fight for abortion rights, and reproductive freedom more broadly, is just one small part of the struggle to reach this much bigger goal. Abortion is simply a tool that allows imperfect people using imperfect contraceptives to end a mistimed or unwanted pregnancy and start afresh. For a person who finds themselves with a mistimed, unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy, abortion care is a mercy, a grace, the gift of a do-over. But that mercy, grace—that gift of a fresh start—doesn’t benefit just the pregnant person. It flows to everyone who loves her and everyone who relies on her, to everyone who shares her joys and sorrows and all the lives that are entangled with her. Most especially, because of how we form families, it flows to her children and her partner.
I’ve been a parent for 28 years, and looking back, the pregnancy part doesn’t loom large in my mind—though it did at the time. My husband, too, has been a parent for 28 years, as fiercely committed and deeply involved with our girls as I have been. Like mine, his life has been profoundly enriched and constrained by parenting. Pregnancy was fascinating and labor sucked, but almost immediately both were displaced by the day-to day-challenge of muddling through work when sleep deprived; and then later the delight of bedtime stories, and the hair-tearing frustration of trying to get kids out the door to school on time, and the angst of illness and injury, and the wonder of watching our daughters emerge as strong, independent beings who love life and love us and sometimes still need us. That was a long process—an everyday commitment for 10,220 days so far (as compared to the 270 days that I spent incubating each child).
I don’t mean to trivialize pregnancy, or the fact that the lives of young women are disproportionately threatened by the loss of abortion access. Yes, pregnancy can injure or break a human body. It kills over 700 women per year in the U.S., and in any given year, approximately 50,000 American women live with significant short or long-term disability caused by pregnancy or childbirth. And yes, yes, I believe that where there is disagreement, the decision to either carry forward or abort a pregnancy must default to the person most affected, the one who is pregnant. And no, a woman cannot fully participate in our democracy or our economy unless she has reliable means to manage her fertility—else every commitment she makes has a great big contingency clause.
But on that last point, the same may be said for young men, many of whom care deeply about becoming good dads when the time and partnership are right. Like a young woman, a young man can have his education, his career and family plans, and his secret wishes and dreams utterly derailed by a surprise pregnancy. This has always been the case, but it may be more so now than ever. When I was young, a good father kept the house from leaking and the bank account flush, and occasionally “helped” with the kids or disciplined them. Even after I started my career as a psychologist in the 1980s, I remember reading a study in which kids were asked how they knew their mom loved them, and then how they knew their dad did. In describing a mother’s love, kids recited long lists of caretaking and nurturing activities. How about Dad? The common answer was, “He tells me so.”
Social and cultural evolution take time, but things have changed a lot in two or three generations. We now expect men to be full partners in parenting—nurturing, slogging through caretaking chores, transporting, playing, putting on bandaids, snuggling, and singing little ones to sleep. And then come soccer games, and tutoring, and waiting in the ER, and college applications. Young men want this level of involvement and expect it of themselves. Even our legal systems recognize the changes. Laws that used to routinely grant sole custody to mothers have gotten more complicated. And DNA makes minimal financial obligations binding.
We can’t have it both ways—embracing these changes and celebrating the ability of men to be more fully themselves with their children—and then treating them as mere allies in the abortion fight. Parenthood is too enormous and too important for us to trivialize the impact of surprise pregnancy on men. If a quarter of women end up needing an abortion at some point in their lives, that means close to a quarter of men do, too. And for these men and their children—and everyone with whom their lives are entangled, the consequences of stripping away abortion access are huge.
As I said, I believe—strongly—that when there is disagreement the decision to abort or carry forward a mistimed or unwanted (or unhealthy) pregnancy must default to the person most affected, the one who is pregnant. But much of the time, abortion decisions are made in partnership as two people who care about each other face the future side by side. I was fortunate to have such a partnership when it was my turn.
Right now, men are particularly vulnerable to mistimed or unwanted pregnancy. State-of-the-art IUDs and contraceptive implants for women have failure rates (meaning unwanted pregnancy rates) ranging from 1-in-500 to 1-in-2000. They toggle the fertility switch to “off” until a person wants it on, and they last for anywhere from three to twenty years. As some providers like to say, they are get it and forget it. By contrast, couples relying on condoms have a one in ten chance of getting pregnant each year. In other words, between the ages of 20 and 50, a guy using the best contraceptive technology available to him could expect about three pregnancies. “Perfect use” statistics for condoms are better, but people aren’t perfect. That’s why get-it-and-forget-it contraceptives are such an improvement.
In my ideal future, all people will have reliable means to manage their own fertility. This won’t be a matter of men relying on women or women relying on men. It will be a matter of each person owning their own body and babies getting created by mutual consent of the two people chipping in DNA. When that happens, most need for abortion will be a thing of the past. Except under rare circumstances, abortion care will be obsolete. But we won’t get there until somebody spends the half-billion dollars it will take to develop a truly safe, reliable, reversible contraceptive for men. That is why, right now, abortion is important for all of us. It’s time we start talking about men not as mere allies, not as mere muscle power or megaphones or extra votes in a battle for women’s rights, but as partners and parents and vulnerable brothers and sons. As family members. As people who care about reproductive empowerment not only because they care about women but because they have loves and dreams of their own.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.
She writes about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society.