Damaged goods

Why has one woman's abortion scared off a host of pro-choice men?

By Judy Berman

Published February 20, 2009 6:33PM (EST)

When a poetry-writing, acid-dropping, Sarah Lawrence-attending date asked a writer named Lauren if she'd ever had surgery, she hesitated before telling him she'd recently had an abortion. And even though he prefaced his question with an in-depth discussion of his own testicular cancer, complete with complaints about "post-surgery masturbation," he couldn't handle her confession. Instead of responding, he leaped up from the table to get drinks. "As far as appropriate date conversation goes, it seems that a dude is allowed to passionately elegize his one removed ball, but I couldn't even make passing mention of a discarded bundle of cells," she writes, in a Nerve piece entitled, "Roe v. Wade v. My Boyfriend."

And the poet wasn't the only man in Lauren's life who reacted strangely upon learning of her abortion. When she told one boyfriend that she didn't feel guilty -- or feel anything, really -- after the procedure, he blew up at her: "How could you not have felt anything?" he asked. "I don't believe you! It's only natural to feel something." A platonic male friend, while supportive of her choice, wouldn't stop harping on how brave and strong she must have been to undergo an experience Bans compares to "minor knee surgery."

Most of the men (minus the poet, who seems not to have stayed in the picture long) eventually got over her revelation and apologized for their behavior. But what remains confusing is why pro-choice men would have such difficulty with the idea that their friend or girlfriend could have an abortion and be just fine about it.

Reading the Nerve piece, I don't think it's that, deep down, these men didn't respect her right to choose. Their reactions seem bound up in a different set of cultural expectations about women. As she writes:

None of these men had faced abortion in any but the most abstract terms; the hyperbolic political and cultural conceptions of the act were all they had. Or maybe my abortion just brought out some standard-issue male anxieties about pregnancy, fertility, the vagina in general.

I agree with Lauren that the men's responses likely had something to do with a sort of "grossness" double standard. Ladies, you know how it is: Men can talk about their penises, what comes out of them, etc., as much as they want in mixed company, but as soon as women bring up menstruation, abortion, or the mechanics of birth, the conversation is over.

But something else that occurs to me in reading this piece is that the men in Lauren's life may have started to see her as "damaged goods" after her confession. A woman who's had an abortion once, they reason, must have horrible judgment and be unable to control her reproductive destiny. This might explain why her boyfriend wouldn't sleep with her without a condom, even though she was on the pill, eight months into their relationship. And that's another double standard, no better than the last one: All women should be allowed to have abortions, but the ones who actually do it -- and especially the ones who don't regret it -- must be slutty, cold-hearted or out of control.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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