Say the Word Abortion: Policy Change Can’t Happen Without Culture Change

In the face of Roe v. Wade being overturned, many states have secured abortion access, yet the stigma and shame still linger.

Ohio state flag
In Ohio, voters are deciding whether to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution. Cage Rivera/Rewire News Group illustration

Updated, October 24, 9:45 a.m.: This piece was updated with more recent data about pregnancy criminalization.

James Baldwin said it best: “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”

There’s no place for abortion stigma in the fight for reproductive justice—so let’s talk about it.

I came to reproductive justice seven years ago when I had an abortion at 18 years old. It was the best decision I could’ve made for my future. For me, like many, the barriers to abortion were not moral or emotional—they were financial, logistical, and societal. Abortion stigma is so pervasive that despite millions of Americans having had an abortion, most public figures would not even say “abortion” until our federal right to it was already stripped away.

Abortion access wins elections. That has been proven across six states that have put abortion on the ballot since Roe v. Wade fell; in each state, voters went to polls in favor of protecting abortion rights.

How many more fights do we have to win before “progressives” stop turning their back on us—and our movement?

Reproductive justice advocates have had a simple ask of progressives for years: Say the word abortion and fight back against stigma. Refusing to name what we are fighting for is a losing strategy, alienating and isolating people who’ve had and will have abortions. These actions continue framing abortion as something shameful and immoral, therefore further fueling anti-abortion narratives and culture.

The same people who have been doing this work for decades are routinely thrown under the bus and silenced. The progressive movement undermines and weakens our movement by constantly trying to appeal to morality—especially the morality of the white religious moderate. If you are unwilling to talk about abortion, you’re doing extremists’ work for them at the expense of a liberation movement that has consistently shown its power and strength.

There has been so much that has changed for our work in the past year; in the face of Roe being overturned, many states have secured abortion access with historic wins, yet the stigma and shame still linger.

At the end of the day, we are all working toward policy change that lays the foundation for our communities to thrive, helps our families be safe and secure, and offers a brighter future than before. But policy change does not happen without cultural change. Destigmatizing abortion is vital to protecting abortion access and better reproductive care. Say the word abortion; talk to your friends and family about what’s happening in your state. Listen to abortion storytellers and support our work. Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion, though you may not know it yet.

Abortion bans especially affect Black pregnant people

Anti-abortion extremists use the word “abortion” four times more often than advocates of abortion access. They have filled our silence with lies and medical inaccuracies, controlling the narrative so much that even abortion rights supporters don’t feel comfortable saying it.

Allowing conservative extremists to constantly frame abortion as a moral question is incorrect and harmful. Abortion is neither a moral nor a partisan issue—it is a health-care issue.

The concept of reproductive justice was first articulated at a conference in Chicago in June 1994 by a group of women calling themselves Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice. They went on to found SisterSong, the first reproductive justice organization in the United States. SisterSong defines reproductive justice “as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

The reproductive justice movement is fighting against a well-funded, well-organized opposition. We cannot afford to be elusive and vague in naming what we are fighting for: abortion and bodily autonomy. We cannot afford to dismiss that it is right-wing, Christian fundamentalists, fascists, and racists pulling the anti-abortion strings across state legislatures. When we boldly declare our opposition and the issues we are up against, we can adequately strategize, analyze, and fight back.

Historically, mainstream abortion advocates have consistently supported candidates, policies, and programs that end up harming those most impacted by the loss of abortion access—people of color.

Reproductive justice—a Black feminist framework—makes it clear our liberation is interconnected. We cannot separate our struggles from those around us. Yet, when we call for allyship and reciprocity in support, we are all too frequently left behind, with abortion access always being the first concession made in political tugs of war.

Hundreds of medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion have been passed in the last ten years; in Ohio, where I live, it’s led to over half of clinics to close.

We know that abortion is a safe, normal, and ethical medical procedure. In fact, in December 2021, a Duke study found that abortion bans could lead to a 21 percent increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths, with that number jumping to 33 percent among Black women. A recent Ohio Department of Health report found that Black mothers died 2.5 times more often than their white counterparts between 2008 and 2016. As the Harvard School of Public Health concisely puts it, this is “simply because staying pregnant is more dangerous than having an abortion.”

All barriers to abortion are racist, harmful, classist tools of white supremacy because they disproportionately impact our Black and brown communities. We cannot keep leaving abortion bans out of the conversation when we are talking about the foundation of democracy crumbling. They are inherently connected. Bans on abortion are just one of the coordinated attacks by extremist lawmakers to control and punish Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as queer, trans, and gender-expansive communities. These laws are designed to shame and stigmatize. The cruelty is not a byproduct—the cruelty is the point.

Our leaders would rather us die pregnant

We know that abortion bans have detrimental health consequences for pregnant people and their families. Abortion is safer than having wisdom teeth removed or even taking penicillin. Yet, the constant harassment from our state’s legislature ensures all reproductive health care—not just abortion—is stigmatized. The criminalization of pregnant people poses serious threats to people’s health and the health system itself, across the spectrum of reproductive care.

Pregnancy Justice, a reproductive justice organization, states the following:

The prosecution of pregnant people through the criminalization of pregnancy will only increase with the reversal of Roe. Pregnancy criminalization has more than tripled across the country in recent years to include more than 1,396 cases from 2006 through 2022, according to Pregnancy Justice data.

Conservative extremists have not been quiet about their end goal. We cannot be quiet about what we are fighting for. We have arrived at this desperate moment because of stigma, and those in power are sending a clear, divisive message. Our leaders would rather us die pregnant than live to receive the abortion care we want and deserve.

The reproductive health and rights movement has spent decades using euphemisms like “women’s rights,” “reproductive health,” “choice”—words that have allowed stigma to permeate abortion care and perpetuate anti-abortion culture—ultimately shaming people who have had abortions. It is vital to this moment in our movement’s history to support the work of bold pro-abortion organizations like Abortion Fund of Ohio, Ohio Women’s Alliance, and We Testify.

Conversations about what abortion is or isn’t are too often dominated by people who cannot have an abortion, continually allowing misinformation and fear-mongering to take center stage. For far too long, we have tailored our talking points to be responsive to the right. It is well past time for us to talk about our bodies, health care, and our abortions to reclaim our narrative. Listen to abortion storytellers. We aren’t shying away from telling the truth. Abortion on demand, for free, without apology, and without stigma.