With Roe v. Wade in peril, abortion-rights activists ask: Where are the men?

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  • Men played a significant role in making abortion legal. Advocates for abortion rights want them to step back up.
  • But abortion rights have largely been framed as a women’s health issue, which has been a ‘disastrous’ approach for getting men involved, one advocate said.
  • The absence of broad, vocal support from men for abortion access means anti-abortion advocates were able to occupy that space, including largely white, Christian men.

Abortion rights activists worried the Supreme Court is poised to strike down Roe v. Wade are increasingly asking: Where are our male supporters?

Although Americans widely support abortion access in the United States, many activists worry about preserving the right to abortion if the Supreme Court decides to overturn Roe v. Wade, effectively ending access in more than a dozen states almost overnight.

Last week, the court confirmed the accuracy of a draft ruling that would overturn Roe, although the final decision could change when it is issued in about two months. If and when that decision comes, activists fear the lack of public support from a broad group of Americans may prolong their fight to restore abortion rights.

Some activists say abortion rights have been framed largely as a reproductive health issue, allowing many men to say they support abortion rights without having to actually participate in protecting them — a “disastrous” approach, said Amelia Bonow, founding director of Shout Your Abortion.

“We just need you guys to start trying. It’s going to be scary and you’ll feel vulnerable and you’ll mess it up sometimes. But we need you to try,” Bonow said. “This is something that affects absolutely every person. I don’t care who you are or where you live. Your life has been shaped in a million profound ways by abortion.”

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Bonow’s Seattle-based national nonprofit works to reduce the stigma surrounding abortions, and in December she organized a group of people who took mifepristone, which can be used to end a pregnancy, on the steps of the Supreme Court. Advocates like Bonow point out that if Americans were more willing to stand up, lawmakers would more easily be able to see the wide support for abortion access.

Men played a significant role in ensuring access to abortion rights in the 1960s, but those were primarily doctors who saw the consequences of back-alley abortions performed before the procedures were legal nationally, said Alesha Doan, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

Doan, who has written numerous books on reproductive rights, said there’s been a clear trend in which many men have stepped back from the abortion rights fight – except for the largely white, Christian men trying to abolish access. 

“The biggest reason we see an absence of male voices is the framing of the issue, the framing of abortion as a women’s issue that men don’t have any place in. And that is inaccurate,” Doan said. “When we talk about abortion rights, we’re talking about equality. We’re talking about body autonomy. These are much larger issues than just access to reproductive health care.”

Doan said the absence of broad, vocal support for abortion access means anti-abortion advocates were able to occupy that space.

“The male voices who dominate the debate are men in power who want to limit or eliminate those rights,” she said. “It’s men speaking about women, men claiming to be experts on women. Men speak very loudly to curb women’s rights. We hear lots of very loud male voices on that side.”

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Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University, said the disengagement by men represents a sense of complacency among those who have only ever known legal abortion since the court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973.

poll conducted last week by Washington Post and ABC News found a majority of Americans – 54% – want the Supreme Court to uphold Roe v. Wade, while 28% support overturning it. When broken down by party, it showed 75% of Democrats, 53% of independents and 36% of Republicans want the ruling to remain in place. 

Almost 25% of American women will have an abortion by age 45, according to an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute and published in the American Journal of Public Health.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Ziegler said, abortion rights groups used language like “My Body, My Choice,” an approach that attracted men, including some conservatives and Libertarians, who supported the idea that governments should stay out of health care decisions.

But that approach risked alienating poor communities of color, who in many cases needed government-provided health care, she said. She said the shift in advocacy language toward reproductive justice, access to birth control and other health issues allowed men to abdicate their participation.

“There probably was, to some degree, a shift away from messaging that targeted the median male voter, and toward the people who were most affected by this, which is women of color,” said Ziegler. “The idea that this is about what government should or shouldn’t do has been replaced by messages that I think some men felt was less useful.”

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The Supreme Court is considering several abortion-related cases, including a 2018 Mississippi law banning virtually all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Advocates fear the court’s conservative majority will use that case to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to ban abortions as they see fit.

In light of that pending decision, advocates have been trying to engage more men and enshrine the right to abortion access by law, not just by Supreme Court ruling. Given the likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade within a year, abortion rights supporters of all genders need engaging, said Kristin Ford, vice president of communications and research for Washington, D.C.-based NARAL Pro Choice America, an abortion rights group.

“Many people, I think, have been nervous talking about abortion. Our society tends to be squeamish talking about topics related to sex. But the reality is that a vocal minority has really focused on that and waged a decadeslong campaign from the bottom up,” Ford said.

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Abortion rights advocates are angry that white men have long been the loudest voices in the anti-abortion movement, and they say all abortion rights supporters, regardless of their gender identity, must pressure legislators to protect access at the state and federal levels.

“A lot of times, abortion is painted as a polarizing issue. And that’s just not true. The overwhelming majority of the country believes abortion should be legal,” Ford said. “This a topic that’s uncomfortable for man people to talk about. And we can’t continue to operate in a culture of shame and silence and stigma.”

Abortion rights groups including NARAL and Planned Parenthood note some male political leaders have been vital supporters, including Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, and U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly, Raphael Warnock, Cory Booker, Richard Blumenthal and Chuck Schumer. They are all Democrats.

Schumer, the Senate majority leader, promised the Senate this week will take up the House-passed Women’s Health Protection Act, which would effectively codify the Roe v. Wade ruling in federal law. But the proposal is not expected to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate, where 10 Republicans would need to support it. President Joe Biden, another champion of abortion access, said he supports the bill.

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Oren Jacobson, co-founder and co-executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit Men4Choice, said pro-abortion men have been silent for too long. He said some just don’t understand the harm that comes from banning abortion, while others think there’s no place for them in what has become positioned as a women’s rights movement. He said everyone needs to start flexing their political muscles in support.

“We have to look at where we are and recognize that part of the reason we are where we are is because pro-choice men have ignored the voices of women who are most impacted by this issue for decades,” Jacobson said. “The guys who support abortion are the ones who are sitting quietly on the sidelines. Our entire goal is to move those guys off the sidelines and into the fight.”

Men4Choice, which works primarily in Illinois but has outreach in other states, focuses on teaching men how to support women who are taking the lead. The group does not bother trying to reach anti-abortion men and instead focuses solely on silent supporters. Jacobson said arguments about paying child support or becoming a father are less persuasive than pushing those men to stand up for women.

“We tell them, you have two roles in this: call out the (expletive) who are using their power to rob people of the right to control their own body, and to show up and support people in the ways they ask us to do so,” Jacobson said. “We try to shift their framework away from just being about abortion, to one about freedom. We ask them the question: ‘Can a person be free if they cannot control their own body and their own health care decisions?’ And we remind them, ‘you’re here to be a partner, not a savior.’”

Bonow, the activist, said it’s possible to get more men engaged by separating public support for abortion access from the more deeply personal decision to have an abortion.

She’s frustrated and angry that the Democratic Party hasn’t done more to protect abortion access, despite 20 years of conservative activists reshaping legislatures, and state and federal courts, laying the groundwork for overturning Roe v. Wade.

“I completely understand why it feels scary or vulnerable, and why men’s impulse would be to ‘stay in my lane,’” she said. “But I need every man who cares about equality and parity, about economic and racial justice, to have an opinion. And to have that opinion out loud.” 

Would Roe v. Wade’s demise reshape the midterm elections? Ask that question in October.