Taking On Abortion Stigma

| Reproaction

By: Laila Salaam

Historically conversations around abortion have often been treated as taboo. No matter if you supported access to abortion or you opposed it, it was a private, personal decision that should not be discussed in public. Even the word abortion has been shamed out of households, classrooms, and houses of government across the globe. This short-sighted view of what abortion is and what it means to have an abortion grows out of abortion stigma.

Abortion stigma has been defined as a “shared understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable” [1]. Abortion stigma creates an environment where conversations about abortion are deliberately filled with shame and misinformation instead of compassion and fact. Abortion stigma has created shame that makes it more difficult for people to share their abortion stories and created more unnecessary boundaries for clinicians to provide care they know is safe and effective.

Abortion stigma alone is one of the biggest barriers to high quality, safe abortion care. In order to make abortion as safe and accessible as it should be, it is necessary to take on abortion stigma.

Stigma negatively affects people who need abortions, people who provide abortions, and people who work towards expanded access to abortions. Stigma is strategically used by the anti-abortion movement to create backwards policies to restrict abortion and police bodies. At the root of abortion stigma is the belief that people societally categorized as ‘women’ are violating an entrenched gender norm when they choose to have an abortion. This sex-negative, misogynist worldview posits that pregnancy is necessary to womanhood, that womanhood is an experience solely for cis women, and that any violation of these gender essentialist norms are not only societally repugnant but deeply immoral. People assigned female at birth are raised with gendered expectations including that they should be sexually pure, only engage in sex for reproduction, and that their implicit nature requires them to be mothers [2]. Having an abortion places these people, their supporters, and providers at odds with these rigid gender norms and decreases their value in sexist measurements of our worth.

Anti-abortion groups often focus on abortion stigma to perpetuate their message. Let’s face it: shaming and spiritual abuse are useful tools for conservative propagandists, as it’s easy to convince people their bodies and thoughts and actions are wrong if they’ve been conditioned to have those views over time. Anti-abortion actors strategically focus on aspects of abortion that we have been trained to believe are taboo and wrong, like whether or not someone experienced a horrible tragedy like rape or incest to ‘deserve’ bodily autonomy in exchange, or at what gestational age it is acceptable to have an abortion. These are artificial, arbitrary guidelines about when and why abortion is acceptable and the power of stigma is thus the basis for proposed national abortion bans with no scientific evidence.

For example: the frequently-repeated claim that abortion is happening “up to birth,” aside from being false and unscientific, sets women and abortion-seekers up as flightly, fickle, and most desirable for anti-abortion goals: violently-inclined. In reality, abortion later in pregnancy is often sought because of a difficult medical reality for the pregnant person or the fetus, because of later pregnancy detection, as is the case for many young people who become pregnant, or because someone sought abortion earlier but was not able to access it. They also use stigma to dictate how abortion can be performed – even though they don’t want any to happen – by restricting medical practices and demonizing providers while simultaneously fear-mongering about people self-managing their abortions with pills.

Even people who would consider themselves pro-choice are unfortunately guilty of spreading stigmatizing messages about abortion. Many commonly-repeated catch phrases like: “no one likes abortion,” “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare,” “I’m pro-choice not pro-abortion,” or suggesting self-managed abortion can only be a regrettable and undesirable last resort for someone contributes to the negative messaging that surrounds people who get abortions and those who support them. [3] When speaking about abortion as someone who wishes to advance necessary health care, it is important to remember that your words have a significant impact on shaping the conversation around abortion. Being “pro-choice” is no longer enough to combat the attacks against abortion that are happening every day around the world. For so many the “choice” of having an abortion has been taken from them by strict bans, restricted access, financial constraints, and increasing anti-abortion violence. There is nothing wrong with abortion, abortion is not a dirty word, and we must talk about abortions with pride and not stigma.


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