The Critical Influence of the Prospective Father on Abortion-Decision Making

Association for Interdisciplinary Research in Values and Social Change
Vol. 14, No. 3 November/December, 1999
Thomas W. Strahan, JD
Reproduced with Permission

Conspicuously absent from most discussions of the abortion issue are considerations of third party interests, especially those of the father. A survey of the literature reveals an implicit assumption by most writers that the issue is to be viewed as a two party conflict -- the rights of the fetus versus the rights of the mother -- and that an adequate analysis of the balance of these rights is sufficient to determine the conditions under which abortion is considered to be morally permissible.1 The United States Supreme Court has held that even a husband has no legal right to be notified prior to his wife obtaining an abortion.2

Despite the fact that the prospective father may be lacking in legal rights, he is nevertheless very likely to be an important part of the decision for abortion or childbirth. For example, several studies have found that the attitude of the prospective father is an important factor in the stress, anxiety or depression of the pregnant woman. One U.S. study found that the two most stressful events that occurred during a pregnancy were, "The woman is pregnant out of wedlock and receives no help from the father of the baby," and "The husband doesn't want the baby she is carrying."3 Another U.S. study found that the most consistent predictor of anxiety throughout the pregnancy was the need for emotional support and the degree of satisfaction of her relationship with her partner.4 Studies in Nigeria,5 Japan,6 and England7 reached similar conclusions.

Anthropologist George Devereux, in his study of abortion in 400 preindustrial societies, concluded that female attitudes toward maternity appear to be largely determined by the masculine attitude toward paternity even where children are ardently desired and fertile women are much esteemed. He concluded that this was true even when women abort of their own free will, including instances where they abort from spite, or as a result of a domestic quarrel, they do so under the impact of a genuine or expected masculine attitude.8 The importance of the male attitude in pregnancy outcome is not limited to preindustrial societies. Teri Reisser, an experienced women's postabortion counselor in Southern California, has stated, "It has been my experience in postabortion counseling that most women desperately needed their partner to demonstrate a reassuring attitude that everything would work out, that the destruction of a baby that was the product of their love-making was out of the question, (and) that he would protect and care for her and the child."9

For many women, abortion appears to be a pressured pragmatic response to a pregnancy rather than an affirmative action in her life which is consistent with her highest and best aspirations. This appeared to be the case in interviews of 1900 women in a 1987 study conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute at U.S. abortion facilities. When women were asked why they were having abortions, 23% said their husband or partner wanted her to have an abortion, 68% said they can't afford a baby now, and 51% said they have problems with a relationship or want to avoid single parenthood.10

Among the 790 women who stated they had relationship problems or wanted to avoid single parenthood, 25% indicated they were not in any relationship with their partner. This could include pregnancy resulting from casual or unwelcome sex or relationships that broke up prior to the abortion. Some 29% of the women said they were aborting because the partner doesn't want to or can't marry. Included among these women are those who may have become pregnant to test the quality of the relationship, and then have an abortion if the male fails to commit himself to the relationship. It would also likely include women who became pregnant from extra-martial affairs. Another 32% gave as a reason for abortion that "the couple may break up soon." This likely indicates that the abortion was a consequence of a conflicted or strained relationship.

Pregnancy decision-making
is often pragmatic.

A couple which is married is much less likely to seek abortion if the wife becomes pregnant compared to other types of relationships. An Alan Guttmacher Institute survey of 9985 women who obtained induced abortions in the U.S. in 1994-95, found that women who are living with a partner to whom they are not married accounted for 20.2% of the women obtaining abortions, but constitute only about 5.8% of women of reproductive age in the general population. In contrast, married women only accounted for 18.4% of the induced abortions but constitute 49.9% of women of reproductive age in the general population. Never married women accounted for 64.4% of the abortions, but were only 37.5% of women of reproductive age in the general population.11

Similar findings have been made among Latin American and African women. A 1983-84 study of Bolivian women with incomplete abortions found that induced abortions were much more likely to be identified among single women never in union (46.3%), or divorced, separated or widowed women (54.8%) compared to women in consensual union (23.6%), or married women (18.0%).12 An African study among 1077 women admitted to various hospitals for incomplete abortions in Kenya during 1988-1989, found that women with induced abortions were much more likely to have been impregnated by a boyfriend and much less likely to have been impregnated by a husband compared to women without an induced abortion.13

The mental and emotional state between women at the time they undergo abortions compared to women at the time of childbirth can be widely different. Many women who have had abortions perceived that they were all alone at the time they had the abortion.14 In contrast, women in a stable marriage may make a "gift" of the baby to her husband which satisfies her sense of femininity and her husband's sense of masculinity. Once this is accomplished, it has been observed that strong reassurance to the self occurred, producing a profound sense of security in the woman.15

Studies in several Latin American countries have also found that the partners ability to provide emotional and financial support are important factors in determining whether or not the pregnant woman has an abortion or carries to term. In a 1974-75 study of Columbian women, if the male partner advised an abortion, the woman took steps to obtain an abortion in 70% of the cases.16 In a 1988 Chilean study, 48% of the women who obtained abortions reported they had relationship problems or could not afford a baby.17 In a study of Mexican women who had abortions in 1980-1988, 33% said they were pressured into the abortion by their partner, 21% of the women said they did not wish to marry the partner and 18% cited economic reasons for having an abortion.18 Brazilian women seeking abortion by use of misoprostol also appeared to do so primarily for socioeconomic reasons including no stable partner and lack of income.19 Other studies among such diverse populations as unmarried, African-American women in the inner-city20 or married Filipino women21 have been found that women are influenced for childbirth or abortion based on the economic status of the prospective father.

Research has identified some of the specific reasons for abortion in the context of the partner relationship. These include a threat to abandon the women if she gives birth, that the partner or the woman herself refuses to marry to legitimate the birth, that a break-up is imminent for reasons other than the pregnancy, that the pregnancy resulted from an extra-martial affair, that the husband or partner mistreated the woman because of her pregnancy, or that the husband or partner simply does not want the child. Sometimes women combined these reasons with not being able to afford a baby, suggesting the importance of a partner who can offer both emotional and financial support.22

Abortion is much less
likely to occur
among married couples.

Various Swedish studies have also confirmed the important role of the male. In one study of 120 Swedish unmarried women all of whom had induced abortions, it appeared that many of the women who had abortions actually desired childbirth. In this study, 80% of the women who had abortions said they wanted children in the future. Two-thirds of those who said they wanted children in the future could accept a child with the same man who fathered the aborted child. Some 68% of the women were nulliparous. Many of the women said they decided more or less on their own to have the abortion. Men's reactions to the pregnancy were, "I support whatever you decide." or "It's your problem."23 Thus, the lack of commitment on the part of the male appeared to be a major reason for the abortions.

In another study of Swedish women, some of whom were applying for abortion, while others were carrying to term, women were asked what were the main motives for choosing an abortion. Some 53% said because of the relationship to the partner, 26% said an unstable life situation for having a child, and only 15% said they do not want more children. The women carrying to term were much more likely to be married or in a stable established longer-lasting relationship with a perceived better economic situation compared to women applying for abortions.24 A more recent Swedish study of 75 male partners of women who obtained abortions found that the most common reaction of males upon first becoming aware of their partners pregnancy was that it was unrealistic and appeared to view abortion as an acceptable form of birth control. Although many men were ambivalent, only one wanted his partner to carry the pregnancy to term.25

Further evidence of male partner influence is found in a study of 71 postabortion women recruited from urban undergraduate colleges in the New York city area. The study found that women would often initially deny that their partners were influential in the decision. However, during the course of the interview, women would describe how they would evaluate the quality of the relationship or the partner's attitude toward the pregnancy. They would further describe how this evaluation was used in their decision to abort. It became evident that the partners were either directly or indirectly influential in the decision-making process.26 A recent study among Vietnamese couples found that both husbands and wives considered the husband to be the main decision maker regarding family size, including the decision whether or not to have an abortion.(42) A German study found that an important factor in pregnancy decision making was the general commitment of the involved man toward a relationship.(43)

Various Specific Ways the Male Influences a Decision for Abortion

One of the reasons for males urging abortion on women may be that the male has difficulty in seeing himself as a father. In a study of 55 expectant fathers by the U.S. Air Force, it was found that men with a previous history of impulsive or schizoid behavior often rejected the expected baby. Expectant fathers who did not have identified psychiatric problems had a superior adaptation to fatherhood and had a "benign kind of identification with their pregnant wife or with the expected baby." However, those with psychiatric problems were unable to form a helpful or stable identification as a "good father or husband."27

Sometimes males influence a decision for abortion by being more dysfunctional compared to childbearing fathers. A Hong Kong study compared husbands of women who were applying for abortion with husbands of women who had completed their pregnancies. Significantly more abortion husbands compared to childbirth husbands reported poor relationships with either or both parents, a more unhappy childhood, more psychiatric illness in their family, had a higher incidence of alcoholism, drug dependency, neurosis, and compulsive gambling. Some 45% of the abortion fathers compared to only 12% of the childbirth husbands considered themselves as having problems.28

Table 1
Case-Control Study of Hong Kong Abortion Husbands
Compared to Husbands of Women Who Delivered
Poor Relationships with Either or Both ParentsAbortionDelivery
Unhappy Childhood20%5%
Presence of Pychiatric Illiness (addiction,
neurosis or other psychiatric problem)
Considered Themselves as Having Problems
(financial, job, relational)
Premarital intercourse resulting in pregnancy10%4%
Source: Husbands of Abortion Applicants: A Comparison with Husbands Who Complete their Pregnancies, F Lieh-Mak et al, Social Psychiatry 14:59-64, 1979

It is not necessary for a prospective father to have a psychiatric or mental illness in order to adversely influence the outcome of a pregnancy. An Australian psychiatrist has found that the unborn child is a potential recipient "par excellence" for projection and displacement. He developed a list of several risk factors for fetal abuse based on attitudes and personality characteristics of the pregnant woman as well as prospective fathers toward the child in the womb.29 These risk factors also can be applied to fetal destruction as well, including the increased likelihood of abortion. Several risk factors specifically include the male partner. These include: low attachment to fetus; denial of pregnancy; passivity by both partners; psychological problems of a pregnancy not being tackled or being overwhelmed by them; perception of the fetus as a threat by spouse or partner; marital dysfunction; or adopting an attitude of being only interested in the fetus rather than the mother.

Overwhelmed by Pregnancy

If men are psychologically overwhelmed by the pregnancy of their partner, this may result in excessive daydreaming, heavy drinking, forgetting related events, doing things to avoid confrontation with the pregnancy, and having trouble making even the simplest of decisions regarding the pregnancy. These are all ways of fleeing from situations that create anxiety.30

When 25 year old Becky told her boyfriend she was pregnant, he panicked. "He just didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to react. He would hike in the hills all by himself." Becky saw she had to fend for herself, and had an abortion.31


Riana (27) faced a similar situation with her boyfriend. She said, "The whole thing was freaking him out far more than me. He waffled between extremes, from frightened but solid support, to getting drunk and high to try to make it go away. Riana obtained an abortion and the relationship broke up.31


Joan is in her early twenties and has one child from a relationship a few years ago. When she got pregnant by a new boy friend, she was devastated by the idea of having two illegitimate children, but would have seriously considered another child if the father was in favor, and she wanted to build on the relationship. Joan said, "He has always said he doesn't want children. He has a very low opinion of himself and is convinced that any child he has will be as "bad" as he is. He just went into a black depression when I told him, and wouldn't discuss it." Joan had an abortion.32

Child Unwanted by Male

"I was surprised for sure, (to find out his girlfriend was pregnant) but in my mind there was never any question of what she'd do. My response was automatic... She wanted the kid, but it seemed totally unreasonable to me. There is no way I could handle a kid right now. (A 31 year old garage mechanic who is now impotent 3 months after his girlfriend's abortion).33


The ability of the male to
provide both emotional and
economic support is important

I was working as a bartender at a local pub when I met Jim. He managed a local band and was very handsome, intelligent and determined. One night he showed up at my apartment claiming he and his wife were through. Our love affair began, and he was helping me raise my two children. Once I found out I was pregnant, all of the band members were very excited for us, except Jim. He did not say anything about it for a week, but when I pressed him, he stated that he did not want me to have the baby, and that if I did he would leave me. So weighing the costs, and very much wanting to please him, plus being fearful of his leaving me... I had an abortion.34

These are not isolated situations. In a study of Hong Kong fathers whose wives had abortions, 44% of these fathers instigated the decision for abortion. In 20% of those cases, the mothers wanted to bear the child.(28) In a survey of 252 U.S. women who were members of Women Exploited by Abortion, one-half of the women said they were encouraged to have an abortion by a husband or boyfriend; others had also encouraged abortion in many instances. The vast majority (84%) stated that the outcome would have been different if they had been encouraged differently. Two out of three said their life was out of control at the time of their decisions.(34)

Unborn Child as a Threat

There are men who struggle to, and perhaps never do, accept the pregnancy.(30) This was the situation with the father in the case next described. It appears to have occurred because he believed that the unborn child was a threat.

May was not particularly happily married with two daughters, and lived in a small house in the suburbs. She worked part-time to supplement her husband's small income. At the time she became pregnant, he was investing the little money they had in a business venture (which later failed). May said: "My husband was furious and would not even talk about the idea of another baby. I pleaded with him that if I could have the child then I would be sterilized. I had never imagined having an abortion... but I knew there was no other alternative because I knew my husband meant it when he said that he would leave me if I didn't get rid of the baby. I couldn't face the idea of being alone, in poverty, trying to bring up three children."(32)

Relationship Conflicts

Conflict in the relationship, which may involve third parties, is a risk factor for abortion if the woman becomes pregnant as the following situations illustrate.


"We don 't know if I am the father of the child. She told me that if she knew for sure I was the father, she wouldn't want to have the abortion. I blame her and she blames me. She says that if I hadn't yelled at her and given her a hard time that night, then she wouldn't have gone out with another guy in the first place... We have lived together for two years, off and on. I will have a boy someday. I know his name." Later his girlfriend found out he was the father, but had the abortion anyway.(33)


Sally had been involved with her partner for only 6 months and they conceived while using the rhythm method. Her partner was very distressed because he had impregnated his previous partner, who claimed to have been using contraception. She gave birth around the time that Sally had conceived. Sally said: "My partner was totally traumatized and rushed out to obtain a vasectomy." Sally had an abortion.(31)

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