Locating Men in Abortion Narratives

How do we locate men in abortion narratives?

With our Perceptions of Pregnancy conference just around the corner, Jennifer Evans and I have been keeping an eye on newspapers for stories relating to pregnancy. This story from The Guardian caught our attention: Ohio’s state assembly has tabled a bill that, if passed into law, would give fathers a say in the decision-making process when it comes to abortion. In cases where a woman is unsure of the father, she could be asked to list five potential men who would then be tested for paternity. If the father could not be identified, a termination would not be permitted. Similarly, in cases where the father’s identity is known, if the man refuses consent, the woman would not be allowed end the pregnancy.

The proposed legislation raises numerous moral and ethical issues (beyond the scope of this post), but what interests me from the perspective of my research on abortion is the role of the father. In considering the historical debate around a woman’s right to choose, I have at times considered what it must be like for a man who desperately does not want a pregnancy to be terminated. But I must admit, I’ve only thought about it fleetingly — and often these thoughts are prompted by plot-lines in soaps or films.  Viewers of Emmerdale, for example, will be familiar with the current storyline surrounding the character of Charity whose new husband Declan had married her because she was pregnant with a child he desperately wanted. Unbeknownst to him, she had an early abortion, which she subsequently passed off as a miscarriage. He was devastated, and viewers are now following him as he struggles to come to terms with his lost chance at fatherhood.


Reading the article in The Guardian today made me reflect on the manner in which men figure in my research on unwanted pregnancy — or, more specifically, why fathers don’t feature. Men regularly make an appearance as politicians, policymakers and campaigners. But what about the man whose role as father is actually at stake? They have been peculiarly absent from my work — and from the sources. Thinking back over the documents I’ve reviewed, fathers have typically been referenced in the context of having deserted expectant mothers. They are normally mentioned as absentee figures. The advice columns of women’s magazines, for example, contain letters from anxious women afraid of the stigma and perceived repercussions of single motherhood.

But it is a sweeping generalisation to assume that all men are absentee figures. What about the men who participate in the decision to end a pregnancy, or, indeed, those who oppose it?

The question is, how do we locate men in abortion narratives? Where can they be found in the sources? Or will locating them actually involve a careful reading between the lines?

Published by Dr Ciara Meehan

I am Head of History and Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. I am the author of 'The Cosgrave Party: a History of Cumann na nGaedheal, 1923-1933' (Royal Irish Academy, 2010) and 'A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-1987' (Palgrave, 2013). I also co-edited 'A Formative Decade: Ireland in the 1920s' (Irish Academic Press, 2015) and 'Perceptions of Pregnancy from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century' (Palgrave, 2017).

2 thoughts on “Locating Men in Abortion Narratives

  1. Thank you for raising this issue. Often fathers/partners are an unheard voice on this issue. I for one welcome any debate/ descision on abortion that does not exclude the father. Less of us than you think will run at the thought of fatherhood, and increasingly we are more willing to take on a larger role – childcare over career.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andy. As a historian, I’m working more on the historical narrative, but that, of course, has a relevance to today’s debate. You’re absolutely right about the increase in the number of stay-at-home fathers. It would be interesting also to trace when became more common, and the reasons why. I suspect much of it is tied up with the recession and the loss of jobs?

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