Regret

REGRET: “I hadn’t given it a thought,” Mark B. Morrow, shown with son Ross, said of long-ago girlfriends’ abortions. “ Now it all came crashing down on me — look what you’ve done.” (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Jason Baier talks often to the little boy he calls Jamie. He imagines this boy -- his son -- with blond hair and green eyes, chubby cheeks, a sweet smile.

But he'll never know for sure.

His fiancee's sister told him about the abortion after it was over. Baier remembers that he cried. The next weeks and months go black. He knows he drank far too much. He and his fiancee fought until they broke up. "I hated the world," he said.


Get developments in medicine, nutrition and fitness delivered to your inbox with our The Health Report newsletter. Sign up »

Baier, 36, still longs for the child who might have been, with an intensity that bewilders him: "How can I miss something I never even held?"

These days, he channels the grief into activism in a burgeoning movement of "post-abortive men." Abortion is usually portrayed as a woman's issue: her body, her choice, her relief or her regret. This new movement -- both political and deeply personal in nature -- contends that the pronoun is all wrong.

"We had abortions," said Mark B. Morrow, a Christian counselor. "I've had abortions."

Morrow spoke to more than 150 antiabortion activists gathered recently in San Francisco for what was billed as the first national conference on men and abortion. Participants -- mostly counselors and clergy -- heard two days of lectures on topics such as "Medicating the Pain of Lost Fatherhood" and "Forgiveness Therapy With Post-Abortion Men."

The most striking session featured the halting testimony of men whose partners aborted. Baier, who now lives in Phoenix, told the crowd he suffered years of depression and addiction. "I couldn't get the thought out of my head about what I had lost."

Since the concept of post-abortion syndrome first emerged in the early 1980s, some women have recounted similar stories -- and learned to leverage them into political power. They speak at legislative hearings and rallies organized by the Silent No More Awareness Campaign. They write affidavits detailing their years of emotional turmoil, which the Justice Foundation, a conservative advocacy group, submits to lawmakers and courts nationwide.

Last spring, the Supreme Court cited these accounts as one reason to ban the late-term procedure that opponents call "partial-birth" abortion. The majority opinion suggested that the ban would protect women from a decision they might later regret.

Women's testimony was also used to justify a sweeping abortion ban passed in 2006 in South Dakota. (Voters overturned the ban before it could take effect.)

"It's a rule of thumb that if you want to get a law passed, you have to tell anecdotes that grab people," said Dr. Nada Stotland, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Assn. Antiabortion activists have done that well, she said. "They've succeeded in convincing a lot of the American public" that abortion leaves women wounded.

Now, those activists see an opportunity to dramatically expand the message.

The Justice Foundation recently began soliciting affidavits from men; one online link promises, "Your story will help legal efforts to end abortion." Silent No More encourages men to testify at rallies.

Therapist Vincent M. Rue, who helped develop the concept of post-abortion trauma, runs an online study that asks men to check off symptoms (such as irritability, insomnia and impotence) that they feel they have suffered as a result of an abortion. When men are widely recognized as victims, Rue said, "that will change society."

Abortion rights supporters watch this latest mobilization warily: If anecdotes from grieving women can move the Supreme Court, what will testimony about men's pain accomplish?

"They can potentially shift the entire debate," said Marjorie Signer of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an interfaith group that supports abortion rights.

The concept of post-abortion trauma is hotly disputed. Several studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals suggest that women who have had abortions are more prone to depression or drug abuse. But the research does not prove cause and effect, Stotland said.

It may be, she said, that women who have abortions are more emotionally unstable in the first place. Abortion is one of the most common surgeries in the country, with more than 1 million performed a year; while some who chose the procedure surely come to regret it, doctors say they see no epidemic of trauma in either men or women.