The Relational Context of Abortion Decision-Making: A Research Note

Catherine Coyle
Vincent Rue, PhD

According to the most current survey of U.S. abortion patients in 2008, 62% of women obtaining an abortion lived with their sexual partner for one year or more prior to their abortion (Jones, Finer & Singh, 2010). The existence of a primary relationship can and often does complicate the complexity and execution of an abortion decision. All too often, particularly with the myopic emphasis on only women’s reproductive rights, the relational context of abortion is minimized or ignored.

A recent study (Costescu & Lamont, 2013) examined the decision-making process between women and men that ultimately led to abortion. The authors of the study reported that half of the women queried indicated that they had decided to abort prior to informing their male partners that they were pregnant. Those women who were undecided about pregnancy outcome asked for advice from their partners. While a majority of the respondents (84%) expressed satisfaction about the amount of communication with their partners, almost one-third of the men and one-fifth of the women “could have discussed it more.” Women were more likely than men (96.6% vs. 70.4%) to report being happy with the communication that occurred. Regarding the decision to abort, most (two-thirds) perceived abortion as a joint decision. However, 25% viewed it as being primarily the woman’s choice and 5% as the man’s choice.

Several issues are worth noting in these findings. First, it is unusual that most of the respondents (female and male) perceived the abortion decision as a “joint” one. This may be indicative of a shift towards increasing awareness of a pregnancy’s relational context and a desire for the continuance of the relationship despite the termination of the pregnancy. Secondly, men are often reticent to communicate their true feelings about abortion. In this study, men were 13% more likely than women to report dissatisfaction with the amount of communication with their sexual partner about the abortion decision.

Given the small sample of only thirty couples in this study, population-wide assumptions or generalizations about the decision-making process among all men and women who decide to seek abortion are not possible. Nonetheless, this study raises important questions including the following:

  • How many men are uninformed of pregnancy and/or abortion? Using a nationally representative sample, Jones, Moore & Frohwirth (2011) found that the percent of women who informed their partners of the abortion varied depending on the nature of their relationships with those partners. “Married (87%) and cohabiting women (88%) were significantly more likely than never-married (79%) women to indicate that the man knew about the abortion, whereas both divorced and separated women (72%) were significantly less likely to perceive the men to know,” (p. 119). In addition, 33% of the women who were not in a relationship reported that the man who got them pregnant did not know they aborted. What are the consequences for men, women, and society if men are marginalized in the context of pregnancy resolution decisions?
  • What are men’s perceptions and preferences concerning their role(s) in the decision-making process? Shostak and McLouth (1984) noted that men tend to view their primary role as one of support for their partners. We do not know how that perception affects men’s adjustment to abortion in the long-term particularly when it includes repression of their needs and desires.
  • How does concurrence or disagreement in the decision-making process impact men’s and women’s adjustment to abortion? Coyle, Coleman & Rue (2010) found that abortion decision incongruence predicted PTSD in both men and women. Broen, Moum, Bodtker & Ekeberg (2005) reported that “male pressure on women to have an induced abortion has a significant negative influence on women’s psychological responses in the two years following the event,” (p. 36).
  • What factors hinder or facilitate the decision-making process for couples dealing with a crisis pregnancy? As previously noted, some research (Jones et al., 2011) has found that the nature of the relationship is associated with the degree of disclosure between partners. A lack of disclosure may preclude men’s opportunities for sharing in the decision-making process. Still another deterrent to joint decision making is Intimate Partner Violence. In a survey of 486 women seeking abortion, incidence of domestic abuse was found to be 39.5% (Glander, Moore, Michielutte & Parsons, (1998). Those women who reported having been abused were more likely to identify relationship issues as the sole reason for choosing abortion and they were less likely to inform their partners of pregnancy and abortion. Understandably concerns for their safety may influence women’s hesitance to involve their partners.

To date, the limited research concerning abortion decision-making has focused on the woman’s right to access abortion services and how men may impede or expedite that access. Men are rarely studied as autonomous participants in the context of abortion. Yet, common sense recognizes that at least some, if not many, men will be permanently affected by a partner’s abortion. More research is needed to understand how men can positively contribute to decisions concerning pregnancy and how they live with the consequences of their decisions and of those made by others.


Broen, A. N., Moum, T., Bodtker, A.S. & Ekeberg, O. (2005). Reasons for induced abortion and their relation to women’s emotional distress: A prospective two-year follow-up study. General Hospital Psychiatry, 27 (1), 36-43.

Costescu, D.J. & Lamont, J.A. (2013). Understanding the pregnancy decision-making process among couples seeking induced abortion. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, 35 (10), 899-904.

Coyle, C.T., Coleman, P.K. & Rue, V.M. (2010). Inadequate preabortion counseling and decision conflict as predictors of subsequent relationship difficulties and psychological stress in men and women. Traumatology, 16 (1). 16-30.

Glander, S.S., Moore, M.L., Michielutte, R. & Parsons, L.H. (1998). The prevalence of domestic violence among women seeking abortion. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 91 (6), 1002-1006.

Jones, R.K., Moore, A.M. & Frohwirth, L. F. (2010). Perceptions of male knowledge and support among U.S. women obtaining abortions. Women’s Health Issues, 21-22, 117-123.

Jones, R.K., Finer, L.B. & Singh, S. (2010). Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients, 2008. New York: Guttmacher Institute.

Shostak, A. & McLouth, G. (1984). Men and abortion: Lessons, losses and love. New York: Praeger.

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