The Problem With Pro-Choice Men

Why do male pro-lifers speak their minds while pro-choice guys stay silent? Hugh Ryan on the fight's glaring gender divide—and why men are turning against abortion rights in droves.

02.05.10 9:44 PM ET

This weekend, Tim Tebow, the Florida Gators quarterback, will star in a contentious anti-abortion Super Bowl ad sponsored by the conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family. The ad comes just over a week after another man, Scott Roeder, was found guilty of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, one of the only doctors in the country providing legal and safe third-trimester abortions.

As usual, it seems men have a lot to say about the things women shouldn’t do. Indeed, the pro-life camp seems to have little trouble finding men who will stump for it loudly and forcefully. Mel Gibson, Ben Stein, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas have all lent their voices to the anti-abortion movement, to say nothing of more radically religious actors like Stephen Baldwin and Kirk Cameron. Male professional athletes have also been willing to speak out against abortion—besides Tebow, Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green and three-time Super Bowl winner Chad Hennings have both done so. In 1989, six members of the New York Giants Super Bowl-winning team went so far as to make a video called Champions for Life for the anti-abortion group, American Life League.

A 2009 Gallup poll found that only 39% of men identified as pro-choice—a ten percent decrease from 2008.

When male celebrities talk about abortion, they’re usually saying that it should be illegal. The pro-life side of the debate has far outpaced the pro-choice side in lining up strong men’s voices. The Tebow ad threw this into relief, and in response, Planned Parenthood Federation has crafted its own video featuring former professional athletes Al Joyner and Sean James.

But in a way, the spot only seems to highlight how far behind in the gender game the pro-choice side is. Tebow is a Heisman Trophy-winning QB in the prime of his career, while Joyner and James have considerably less star-power. James was a rookie free agent with the Minnesota Vikings for one season in the early 1990s, and Joyner, brother of track star Jackie, is best known for his Olympic gold-medal win—in 1984.

Outspoken pro-choice men are in such short supply that when Scott Fujita, the linebacker from the New Orleans Saints, offered a few tepid comments about how he and Tebow “might not see eye to eye” on the issue, it was treated as the pro-choice camp’s official (and most forceful) masculine response. Though all three of these men should be commended for speaking up for freedom of choice, the fact that they are the defining male retort doesn’t paint a strong picture of men in the movement.

Tait Sye, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, says that even these few celebrities (and other outspoken men) “help to get our message out. They add a little bit of buzz.” He cites The Sporting News, a respected online sports outlet, which summarized the ad as “male athletes preaching to think twice before following the preachings of another male athlete.”

But is it too little, too late? The pro-choice movement has been losing male supporters at an alarming rate for at least a decade. A 2009 Gallup poll found that only 39% of men identified as pro-choice—a drastic 10 percent decrease from 2008.

Pro-choice activists argue that there’s more to the issue than one poll, however. Ted Miller, Communications Director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, points to South Dakota. When a legislative ban on abortions was defeated in 2006, anti-abortion activists claimed that a similar bill, with exceptions for rape and incest, would pass in the next legislative cycle. In 2008, the bill, now with exceptions, was handily defeated again, and both pre- and post-polling showed men and women equally against it.

Perhaps in the privacy of the ballot-box, men are able to “woman up” a little and vote to protect freedom of choice. Yet many men seem unwilling to identify with the “pro-choice” label, and when it comes to the work of the movement, men are scarce on the ground.

“It feels wrong to say, but I think [men] are more likely to be pro-life,” says Betsy Housten, a longtime pro-choice activist in New York who, for years, escorted women past protesters at a clinic that provided abortions. In that time, she says she saw only “one or two men” on the pro-choice side of the demonstrations. In contrast, she says that fully half of the anti-abortion protesters at the same demonstrations were men. Housten theorizes that many pro-choice men may be afraid of stepping on women’s toes, or taking up space that is not theirs to take. Men on the pro-life side, she believes, are much less likely to feel shy about saying, “’I know what’s right for you,’ with no examination of their own privilege.”

This speaks to the central male problem. On the pro-choice side, abortion is seen as a women’s issue, while on the pro-life side, it’s seen as a religious issue that knows no gender boundaries. Rabbi Dennis Ross from the Concerned Clergy for Choice insists that “in a religiously diverse society as ours, we cannot establish the teachings of one particular faith as the public policy for all.” But this sort of argument hardly has the rhetorical power of a movement that claims abortion kills innocent babies. In a country where men make up about half the population, control most of the government, and run 485 of the Fortune 500 companies, it’s hard to overstate the need for men to be brought on board with the reproductive rights movement.

Miller says that NARAL’s ongoing research project among young voters has found that of those who “were supportive of a woman’s right to choose… almost all the young men talked about women in their lives who had gone through the experience of choosing abortion.”

I can attest to that. Before I became a raging pro-choice activist, I was raised Catholic by liberal Democrats, supportive of a woman’s right to choose in only the most casual, lackadaisical way. The issue didn’t grab me until my junior year in college, when I stumbled upon the results of a home abortion in my own college dorm. A young Filipina architecture student was crying under the fluorescent lights in the bathroom, a puddle of blood spreading beneath her on the cold tile floor. We left smeared red footprints all the way to the school health center. She kept repeating “I’m just a little sick, that’s all. Please don’t tell my parents. Please.”

She took a leave of absence that semester, and I never saw her again. But every second of our short interaction has stayed with me, undiminished by the passing of more than a decade.

The truth of the matter is that women have always and will always make decisions about whether or not to have children, regardless of what their parents, Congress, or Tim Tebow have to say about it. But without vocal support—from men and women—procedures will become more difficult to get, and more dangerous for the women who need them. Having seen the alternative, I know which side I stand on.

Hugh Ryan is a Brooklyn-based writer and activist. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Details, The Advocate, The New York Post, and other venues. He is also writing an anarchist children's book. Visit him at