My job takes me to some deeply personal spaces, and so I have spent a lot of time in abortion clinics. I’ve written articles about women driving hundreds of miles to end pregnancies. For a story about abortion doulas — volunteers who hold hands and offer support through the procedure — I spent two months of Saturdays in a Virginia clinic that performed nine or 10 each day. With patients’ permission, I stood in the corner of an exam room holding a notebook. And when patients didn’t want a journalist present for one of the most intimate moments of their lives, I’d excuse myself to the waiting area. Where I’d sometimes talk to the men.
It wasn’t all husbands or boyfriends in the waiting room; sometimes it was mothers or roommates. But the patients receiving abortions weren’t allowed to drive themselves home, so they always came to the clinic with someone, and the someone was often the person responsible for the pregnancy that was now being ended.
It was an odd wait for these men. They fiddled with their phones or flipped awkwardly through the fashion magazines piled on end tables. One asked me if he’d have time to run to GameStop before his girlfriend came out of anesthesia. I wanted to throttle him — now isn’t the time for your gaming addiction, my good man — until he explained: He wanted to buy the new Tomb Raider for her, so she could play while she convalesced.
In those moments, these men reminded me of the little boys you see waiting for their mothers outside department store dressing rooms or towed into the ladies’ locker room at the Y and instructed to keep their eyes closed. These men knew they had to be there but weren’t sure what their jobs were. So mostly they just waited while their partners disappeared into exam rooms for the complicated business of being a woman.
On Tuesday afternoon, progressive groups including Planned Parenthood and MoveOn organized rallies across the country to protest a spate of antiabortion legislation recently passed in Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Ohio. At the one in Washington, D.C., representatives and senators took turns from the podium, promising to fight for reproductive choice. Many were women — Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii); Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
But men were there, too — from the podium and in the crowd. “Your stake in this fight is as big as anyone’s,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told them. Said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), “It’s not my job to come to Washington and take away the rights of my wife.”
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) shared that he used to be antiabortion but that he changed his position when he took office and began to hear from female constituents. “I met women for the first time in my life who’d had an abortion,” he said.
His conversion seemed appreciated by the audience, even if it was based on a dubious presumption: Since a quarter of all women in the United States have ended a pregnancy, Ryan had likely met many women who’d had abortions. He just didn’t know it. I wanted to give him a B+ for effort: “You don’t quite know what you’re talking about, congressman, but thank you for saying it!” I would have told him. “Think it through a little more next time — but for now, good job!”
I’ve been thinking about men who support abortion rights and how they should talk about it. It can’t always be only women who have to bare their souls in public. It can’t be only women painstakingly sharing their stories in the hopes that legislators will listen.
But it’s an incredibly delicate balance for even the most well-intentioned men to strike. There’s a fine line between encouraging women to take the lead, and in making women feel like they’re stranded out in front alone with nobody behind them.
There’s a fine line between recognizing that if you don’t have a uterus you won’t be as affected — nobody is talking about imprisoning men whose partners have abortions — and deciding that if you don’t have a uterus, you don’t need to care.
A male reader emailed me the other day: “We need more women to speak out against outdated policies,” he wrote. He didn’t want to get in the way by speaking out against those policies himself, he said.
But there was an element of his deference that sounded like a retrograde husband trying to shirk domestic duty: Surely, if he tried to help load the dishwasher, he’d only do it wrong and muck it up. Surely, it was better to just leave the messy business to his wife.
But they’d both dirtied the dishes. The messy business was a joint endeavor.
Which is what I ended up writing back to him:
Men who support access to abortion are going to say wrong things and do wrong things, and they might feel awkward about it, and they might be gently castigated and encouraged to do better. And the whole conversation might be incredibly uncomfortable, because these aren’t conversations anyone wants to be having.
They should still try. Men who support abortion rights should still try.
I’ve been thinking about the men in the waiting room of the abortion clinic because they’d shown up in the waiting room of that abortion clinic. Because they were there, in that womanly space, doing the best they could at the time. Because they probably had a hundred places they would have rather been. But their wives and girlfriends were on the other side of the door, and they knew there were a hundred places she would have rather been, too.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.