If you feel like anti-abortion bills are being passed by Republican lawmakers at every turn, you wouldn’t be wrong. Recently, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed near-total abortion bans, and four governors have signed such bans into law. Though not yet enacted, the laws would outlaw abortion once a “fetal heartbeat” can be detected, as early as two weeks after a missed period in some cases.
Abortion is already deeply stigmatized, but increasingly restrictive measures cement the idea in the public consciousness that there is something inherently wrong with it. Numerous organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, have vowed to fight these new laws.
That’s important. But so too is the responsibility we all have: challenging the myths, misinformation, and stigma surrounding abortion that contribute to a culture where such laws are seen as valid.
Here are four ways we can all fight abortion stigma in our everyday lives.
Avoid creating an abortion hierarchy
My mother was 26 years old in 1973 when the Supreme Court affirmed that abortion was a constitutional right. She knew well what it was like to grow up when the act of performing or obtaining an abortion was a crime, and as a result she was vocal in her support of its legalization. However, she also qualified her views on abortion, identifying some abortions, like those in cases of rape, incest, young age, poverty, or health risks, as more defensible than others.
This is a really common view, but Alison Norris and her colleagues explained in a 2011 research paper how it can be a problematic one. As they write, “The pro-choice community, researchers, and advocates need to avoid language that endorses ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ reasons for abortions. Pro-choice people should not distance themselves from abortion, invoking ‘safe, legal, and rare’ language, which perpetuates the stigma.” When people do this, they explain, it reinforces the view that certain abortions are legitimate and others are not.
Ultimately, no one but the pregnant person is qualified to decide whether it’s the “right” decision.
Another problem with this dichotomy is that it disproportionately hurts people who are already marginalized or whose presentation challenges mainstream views on acceptable abortion motivations. One study, published in 2016, found that some doctors privileged abortions “when women perform normative gendered sexuality, including distress about the abortion, guilt about failure to contracept, and desire for motherhood.”
Being forced to meet criteria for abortion worthiness means that, in a world where the goal posts are ever shifting and where the playing field is far from level, a lot of people will be disqualified.
Don’t assume abortion is a devastating choice with dangerous mental health implications
Many people assume that people who have an abortion will be, or should be, deeply conflicted about the experience. Expressing uncomplicated feelings can leave someone branded as heartless or cavalier. The persistence of this belief can mean that people who have abortions may feel pressure to express more conflict about the experience than they actually feel. This serves to deepen the perception that abortion is always a gut-wrenching choice.
There is also the assumption that abortion will inevitably damage a person’s mental health. But the research doesn’t bear this out. For example, a study looking at the mental health impact of receiving versus being denied a wanted abortion found that the greatest predictor of negative mental health outcomes was not whether or not the person got the abortion, but rather it was having a history of mental health conditions, violence, or child abuse and neglect. Another study, this one done by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that approximately 95 percent of women who had an abortion did not regret their choice. Researchers have also determined that stigma and secrecy, and not the fact of having an abortion, causes people the most distress about the procedure.
There are a lot of normal responses to abortion, but painting the experience with a single brush invalidates the range of experiences people actually have.
Talk about abortion as a part of reproductive health care—which it is
Abortion is so common that approximately 1 in 4 women will have one by the time they are 45. Yet we often treat abortion as if it is completely separate from other aspects of reproductive health care. That can make people who terminate their pregnancies feel very alone.
One way to combat this is for health-care providers and sexual health educators to include abortion in discussions about reproductive and sexual health care. Of course, this is easier said than done. Thirty-seven states require sex education programs include abstinence. As is often the case in those states, conversations about abortion are typically inaccurate or absent. Plus, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced changes to Title X, the federal family planning program, preventing doctors who work in clinics that receive Title X funding from referring patients for abortion care even if their patients ask about it. Earlier this month, a federal judge temporarily blocked the “gag rule,” but there is still a chance it could be enforced.
Even so, whenever possible it is helpful for all of us to weave in conversations about abortion alongside topics like contraception, safer sex, and infertility treatment. Doing this will go a long way toward normalizing the health-care service.
Share abortion stories
A number of years ago, an acquaintance who lived abroad was coming through town and I offered to put her up for the night. She ended up delaying her trip by a few days. When she arrived, she mentioned that she’d needed to have an abortion shortly before her travels. I remember being surprised both by her candor and by the absence of any other explanation as to why she’d had an abortion. That is because in the United States, abortion stigma means that people typically keep their abortions a secret from everyone but their innermost circle. This woman clearly had a different perspective and encountering that was eye-opening.
Certainly, more and more people are trying to change this culture of secrecy. For example, We Testify, an abortion storytelling leadership program at the National Network of Abortion Funds, centers the experiences of people of color. People can also find abortion stories at the website Shout Your Abortion. In recent days, the celebrity driven #YouKnowMe has been trending as more people open up about their abortions. Reading through these is a good reminder of the power that comes from sharing personal experiences. That’s not to say that everyone needs to broadcast the intimate details of their health care to the entire world; we are all entitled to medical privacy (in fact, that is one of the fundamental principles of Roe!). Nevertheless, even a single one-on-one conversation can help destigmatize abortion and make an impact.
In many ways, abortion is one of the hardest topics to talk about today. Clearly people have a range of views and working to destigmatize the procedure doesn’t mean that everyone will land on the same page. But the more we talk about abortion, the less effect stigma will have.