Abortion rights advocates say they need more men’s voices

Donovan Atterberry
Donovan Atterberry poses for a portrait, Wednesday, May 11, 2022, in Cleveland, Ohio. Atterberry is an organizer for New Voices for Reproductive Justice, which advocates for Black womens’ health care including access to abortion. (AP Photo/Nick Cammett)

If Donovan Atterberry thought about abortion at all as a young man, it was perhaps with some vague discomfort, or a memory of the anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic that he would pass on his way to the park as a child.

It became real to him in 2013, when his girlfriend, now his wife, became pregnant with their first child together. She’d had a healthy pregnancy before, his stepdaughter, but this time genetic testing found a lethal chromosomal disorder in the developing fetus, one that would likely result in a stillbirth and also possibly put her life at risk during a delivery.

“As a man, I didn’t know how to console her, how to advise her,” Atterberry, now 32, recalls. “I said, ‘If I had to choose, I would choose you.’ … It wasn’t a matter of do I believe in abortion or I don’t believe in abortion. At that point, I was thinking about her life.”

She chose to terminate the pregnancy and “it changed my whole perspective … on bodily autonomy and things of that nature,” said Atterberry.

So much so, that he now works as a voting engagement organizer for New Voices for Reproductive Justice, which focuses on the health of Black women and girls, with abortion access being among the areas of concern.

“What I’m trying to convey is that it’s a human right for someone to have a choice,” he said.

That Atterberry is a man in support of abortion rights isn’t unusual; according to polls, a majority of American men say they support some level of access to abortion. And history is replete with men who have played active roles in supporting abortion, through organizations, as legislators and in the case of Dr. George Tiller, as an abortion provider. Tiller was assassinated in church by an anti-abortion extremist in Kansas in 2009.

Still, there is room for a lot more who are willing to speak out and be active in the political battles over abortion availability, Atterberry says.

Where men have always played an outsize role is in pushing for and enacting abortion restrictions — as advocates, state elected officials and most recently, as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Justice Samuel Alito authored a draft of a high court ruling that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing a nationwide right to abortion. The draft, which was leaked to a news outlet last month, appears to have the support of the majority of the six men sitting on the nine-justice court.

Women have always taken the lead in the fight to preserve abortion rights, for obvious reasons: They are the ones who give birth and who, in so many instances, are tasked with caring for children once they are brought into the world.

No one is calling for that leadership to change, said David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University who specializes in law and gender.

“Men should not be out there trying to run the movement or take away leadership positions,” he said. “But being a part of it, supporting, listening and being active are all things that men can and should be doing.”

That’s what Oren Jacobson is trying to do at Men4Choice, the organization he co-founded in 2015, where the goal is to get men who say they support abortion rights to speak out and do more, such as protesting, making it a voting priority, and especially talking to other men.

“Everything we’re doing is focused on getting what are really millions of men — who in theory are pro-choice but are completely passive when it comes to their voice and their energy and their time in the fight for abortion rights and abortion access — to get off the sidelines and step in the fight as allies,” he said.

It hasn’t been the easiest of tasks.

Abortion “is almost never a conversation inside of male circles unless it’s introduced by somebody who is impacted by the issue in most cases,” he said. “Not only that, but … you’re talking about a heavily stigmatized issue in society. You’re talking about sex and sexuality, you’re talking about anatomy, and none of those things are things that guys feel particularly comfortable talking about.”

But it is something that affects them and the culture they live in, notes Barbara Risman, sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Sexuality has become so integrated into our lives, whether or not we’re partnered,” she said. “That is directly related to women’s control of fertility — and women do not control fertility in a world where abortion is not legal. … Certainly, heterosexual sexual freedom is dependent on the ability to end an unwanted pregnancy.”

Also, a society in which the state has a say in reproductive decisions could lead to one in which the state has control over other decisions that could affect men more directly, Cohen said.

“Abortion law, abortion precedent is not just about abortion, it’s also about controlling intimate details to your life,” he said. “So whether it’s your sex life, your family life, other parts of your private life, medical care, decision-making, all of those are wrapped up into abortion law and abortion jurisprudence and abortion policy,” he said.

Since the Supreme Court draft was leaked, Jacobson said he’s seen more men speak out about abortion access and show more interest in his group’s work than he has in the past several years.

What remains to be seen, he said, “is whether or not it’s going to catalyze the type of allyship that’s needed now and frankly has been needed for a long time.”