In the wake of this month’s wave of abortion bans passed by legislatures in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri, many women have publicly recounted their own abortions on social media. The idea behind this outpouring is that people might be moved to support or fight for abortion rights if they see how common the procedure is, how many people they know and respect have had one, and how integral abortion care was to those women’s full participation in public life.
This type of storytelling has cropped up spontaneously on social media, but it’s also a tried-and-true tactic of reproductive justice movements; at rallies, for instance, activists will often go up to the mic to tell the stories of their own abortions. More recently, celebrities (including Busy Philipps) and journalists (including some at Slate) have explained how the ability to terminate an unwanted or impractical pregnancy has made their health, relationships, future families, and professional success possible.
Now, women are starting to ask men to share their abortion stories, too. “Behind millions of successful men is an abortion they don’t regret getting with their partner,” Vox’s Liz Plank tweeted on Wednesday. “I urge men to go beyond solidarity and talk about how they’ve personally benefited from abortion rights.” Top Chef’s Padma Lakshmi encouraged men to talk about the abortions of their loved ones using the hashtag #HimToo. (Conservatives used the same hashtag to stoke fear about false rape allegations around the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, but it was a nice effort on Lakshmi’s part.) Another activist asked men, “What did you do when the woman you impregnated made a choice?” Some argued that it shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of women to excavate their personal reproductive histories as evidence of their own humanity when their rights are on the chopping block.
In response, some men have been tweeting about abortions in their own pasts.
Progressive consultant Evan Sutton told a widely retweeted story of a sexual partner who had an abortion when she was 19 and he was 22. “We worked together at a bar and had been sleeping together for maybe 5 or 6 weeks,” he wrote. “Things got very weird and very toxic in ways neither of us had the tools to deal with effectively. I can only imagine how bad it would have been with the stress of a baby. We’re both parents now, with kids who benefit from parents with emotional capacity (and financial stability) to care for them.” Jaremi Carey, a former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race, wrote that his then-girlfriend got pregnant when he was 15 and she was 16. “She ended up having an abortion. We were lucky to be able to have an open, honest, intelligent conversation about how we could not bring a life into this world that we could not give our fullest devotion and proper life they deserve and should have,” he tweeted.
“I got my girlfriend pregnant at a time where neither of us were prepared for a baby. If it weren’t for the strength of that woman I would’ve become a statistic,” tweeted fashion consultant Mike Camargo, aka Upscale Vandal, in a thread. “I’ve never shared that information with anybody but it’s imperative that as men we speak & back up the women that put us here.”
There’s a thin line to walk for men who want to do the right thing, tweet-wise, at this terrible moment in U.S. reproductive history. They don’t want to co-opt a woman’s story or center themselves in a discourse about women’s bodily autonomy. But they’re also looking for ways to signal their support and perhaps acknowledge that they, too, have reaped the benefits of legal abortion—that the lives they currently live would have been impossible or vastly different if a current or former partner had been forced by the state to give birth against her will. For every tweet telling men they’re “cowards or hypocrites” if they don’t share their partners’ abortion stories, there’s another one telling them “it’s not their place.”
“I saw someone on FB suggest that men tell their abortion stories in solidarity,” writer and professor David Dennis Jr. tweeted. “I found that interesting because I’d always thought of them as stories for women to tell because they were happening to their bodies and it’d be best to just RT/amplify. What’s the move here?”
In my opinion, some good may come from getting men to recognize their personal investment in abortion rights, even if they don’t share it out loud. If they do, they may reach family members or friends who think they don’t know anyone who’s been involved in an abortion, which could help normalize the idea that reproductive autonomy is essential to a just and equitable society. There are a few elements that the best examples of the men-tweeting-about-abortion genre share: The person who had the abortion consented to making the story public. (This isn’t always evident from a social media post, but it’s essential.) The man recognizes that whatever his involvement was, the decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy should always belong to the pregnant person. And he includes a call to action, a reminder that the fight for reproductive justice and women’s rights is ongoing and urgent.
But there’s no perfect way for this conversation to go down. It’s maddening to think that men must share their own personal experiences with women’s medical care in order for those women to have a shot at retaining their right to that care, just because anti-abortion men might finally listen if the message comes from a man. It’s also maddening to think about the fact that men have the ability to sit this debate out, because their bodies are not implicated—or reviled, or criminalized, or deliberately misunderstood—in quite the same way. It’s also maddening to remember that tweets are not votes in state legislatures, that gerrymandering and voter suppression have concentrated the political power of existing opposition to abortion rights, and that the fate of female self-determination in multiple U.S. states currently lies in the hands of a majority-conservative judicial body with at least two credibly accused sexual aggressors on the roster. With that in mind, it seems like these stories might be less about capturing hearts and minds than making progressive women feel better about the men around them—or, at best, giving progressive men a nudge to make the jump from ideals to activism.
“Frankly, I don’t know how politically important or effective any kind of tweeting is—I think it’s mostly about signaling solidarity with a movement rather than actually changing minds,” my Slate colleague Gabriel Roth, who tweeted about an abortion his ex-partner had when he was 22, told me Friday. “I think it’s a problem that the bulk of political work around reproductive rights is borne by women, but I don’t think the tweeting is more than a nugatory contribution to that work.”
Right-wingers have predictably responded to calls for men to share their abortion stories with their own anti-abortion takes. “Not a day goes by where I do not feel abject shame and guilt for being party to something of which I was given zero choice. Big shout out to the dudes sharing similar experiences after I mentioned this the other day,” actor and producer Adam Trahan tweeted with a beer-clinking emoji. One man relayed someone else’s experience: “Knew a married man that was fooling around on his wife having unprotected sex with another woman. She got pregnant, got an abortion, his wife still has no idea. What hashtag am I supposed to use at the end of this inspiring story?” In response to a man who tweeted that without the abortion his girlfriend had at age 24 after a condom broke, “at least three lives would’ve been ruined,” another man quipped that he, too, was conceived due to a broken condom. “My parents made the hard decision to NOT abort at ages 19/20, but divorced before I was 1,” he tweeted. “I became first college grad in family, now have a successful career, amazing wife & 2 children.”
This aggravating exchange points to a weakness in the personal-investment theory of abortion-rights messaging. If you appeal to someone’s selfish interests or personal history to make the case for social and political equity, they’re just as likely to use their selfish interests or personal history to argue against it. There’s something slightly demeaning about framing women’s fundamental human rights as worthwhile because men have “personally benefited” from them, in the words of Plank, this HuffPost editor, and plenty of other feminists. It recalls the way some people argued for equal marriage rights by touting the potential financial windfalls corporations and state economies would enjoy. The second those things go away—if some men don’t benefit from abortion, or if companies don’t make money from gay people getting married—the argument withers. In an ideal world, the human rights argument would stand on its own.
But that’s not where we are. It’s a testament to how desperate people committed to abortion rights feel right now that they’re trying every angle they can.