Shame and stigma shouldn’t be able to stop people from getting health care.
Let’s start with a definition. Abortion stigma is the negative ideas assigned to folks who seek abortions, who have had them, and who provide them. These ideas include the notion that abortion is wrong, dangerous and dirty, that everyone who has an abortion regrets their decision, that abortion causes mental distress, those who perform abortions aren’t legitimate doctors, it’s unthinkable and immoral to have more than one abortion, and more.
Abortion stigma impacts the ability of folks who need abortions to get them. It’s why there are so many laws dictating how, when, and if abortion can be accessed, why many doctors aren’t trained to perform abortion, and why, if you’ve had an abortion, you might feel like you shouldn’t talk about it, especially if you don’t feel regretful about your decision.
“Abortion stigma comes at you from all sides,” says L, a clinic escort in California.
As an escort, L sees abortion stigma in action when she guides patients and their loved ones past protesters and into the facility. “Our clinic takes people who are having elective procedures and people who are miscarrying, and people who have non viable pregnancies. So they all have to walk the same lying, gory photo, slut shaming gauntlet side by side.” Even the perception that someone is having an abortion is objectionable, due to abortion stigma. “People don’t understand the universal harm of abortion stigma, how it affects everyone, even those not having elective abortions,” says L.
L has been surprised when statements rife with abortion stigma come from the mouths of providers and clinic staff themselves. “I’ve heard, ‘well, I don’t believe in abortion. I don’t think abortion is right.’ But, they do abortions every day because of poverty, substance abuse, bad sex ed, etc.”
We come across abortion stigma every day. On television, characters who are pregnant and don’t want to be tend to conveniently miscarry, so that the show won’t actually have to have a storyline where abortion is portrayed positively and accurately.
And of course, in conversations with family and friends, we might encounter problematic attitudes. L told me, “I always get an earful about, “Well, of course it’s always a terrible decision, how good of you to be there for those poor young ladies on such a hard day.”
So what can you do to help dismantle abortion stigma? Here are 5 concrete ways to push back.
Get real with yourself re: your own ideas about abortion
Abortion stigma is insidious – just because we believe abortion should be accessible doesn’t mean we don’t hold our own ideas about it that are based in shame and stigma. We might think that having more than one abortion is wrong, even if we’d never say it. You might catch yourself saying things like, “I’d never have an abortion, but I think it should be legal.” These deeply held ideas can hold you back from your work in dismantling abortion stigma, because they contain stigma themselves. Identify where your own shame exists around abortion, and work on getting rid of it.
Volunteer and Vocalize
Pick a local or national organization that supports abortion rights and reproductive justice. You can do intake for an abortion fund (talking to folks who need help funding their abortions and being part of a team that allocates funds), escort at a clinic, support a candidate who is working for abortion access, and more. Talk about your experiences with your friends and family. Don’t leave out the word “abortion” when you do.
Support people who have had abortions
Here’s a great primer on how to be there for loved ones. In addition, become a resource on sexual and reproductive health and make sure your friends know that they can come to you. “If a friend came to you and needed an abortion, would you know where to tell her to go? Investigate what the options are near you and learn about what it takes to get abortion care,” suggests Steph, a research who studies abortion stigma. “Is there a waiting period? What insurances cover it? How much does it cost out of pocket? How far away is the clinic?”
Center the stories of those who have had abortions
Listen to abortion stories. Surround yourself with them. There’s no shortage of places to find them. Check out We Testify, where folks are telling their abortion stories with the goal of expanding the notion of who has an abortion and how race, class, gender and sexuality relate to it. There’s also The Abortion Conversations Project and The Abortion Diary Podcast. Look for abortion speak outs, such as the one organized by the 1 in 3 Campaign.
“People who have had abortions should be leading organizing and decision making around policy, advocacy, storytelling, all of it,” says Steph. “If not, raise that issue. If there aren’t people of color at the table, ask about that too. The majority of people who have abortions are people of color. They should be leading in this movement.”