Groundbreaking Research Aims to Expand Our Knowledge of Abortion Stigma

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Analysis Abortion

Groundbreaking Research Aims to Expand Our Knowledge of Abortion Stigma

Steph Herold

Despite its ubiquity in our culture, abortion stigma has garnered relatively little scholarly attention. Now, after two years of effort, there's a new issue of the academic journal Women and Health that focuses entirely on the subject.

Abortion stigma—the belief that abortion is socially or morally unacceptable—permeates every level of our culture. Experts note the presence of such stigma in the myths and mischaracterizations of abortion in the media. Researchers find it in the marginalization of the procedure within health-care facilities, as well as in the silence around abortion in communities, families, and friendships. And policymakers reinforce it on a state, national, and global level through restrictive legislation. Even so, compared with other types of widespread societal shaming, such as those surrounding mental illness or HIV, abortion stigma has received relatively little scholarly attention.

This is almost certainly a result of the stigma’s effect on the academic community. “When we began work on abortion stigma in 2008, we found that it was under-researched and under-theorized—and I think that stems from the marginalization of abortion both within funding circles and in the global public health arena,” said Leila Hessini, director of community engagement work and co-leader of the stigma and awareness project at the global nonprofit Ipas. Indeed, many scholars report difficulty in finding resources and funding to study abortion.

In turn, this lack of support means pro-choice activists and organizations don’t know as much as we could about who experiences abortion stigma, how they experience it, and what the consequences are—leaving us ill-prepared to prevent and combat it.

“For years, researchers, advocates, and policymakers have stumbled over stigma in working toward improving women’s reproductive and sexual health and rights,” confirmed Kristen Shellenberg, senior researcher at Ipas.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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In an effort to broaden the discussion around abortion stigma and spark further research and critical thinking, scholars from our own Sea Change Program, as well as Ipas and the University of California, San Francisco-affiliated research group Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), envisioned a special issue of an academic journal entirely focusing on abortion and stigma. After two years of work, the special issue of Women and Health has been published, and all articles are free to access until March 2015.

In one piece, Adrianne Nickerson, Ruth Manski, and Amanda Dennis of the research nonprofit Ibis Reproductive Health uncovered how stigma manifests in the individual attitudes of low-income women in the United States seeking abortion services. The Sea Change Program’s Annik M. Sorhaindo, meanwhile, explored with her co-authors the stigma that men and women in Mexico see and experience in their communities when they try to obtain abortion care.

Two other articles provided new ways of measuring abortion stigma—a crucial area of study, as such measurements will allow activists and advocates to evaluate whether interventions are actually effective at decreasing stigmatizing attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. To this effect, Ipas’ Shellenberg, Leila Hessini, and Brooke A. Levandowski used focus groups of community members in Ghana and Zambia to develop a scale of attitudes toward women who have abortions in those countries. In the United States, Lisa Martin and her colleagues tested an instrument to assess the stigma of abortion among providers.

Building on these objective studies, three commentaries examined stigma’s long-ranging consequences on a national scale and proposed ways to combat it. ANSIRH’s Carole Joffe described the harassment, regulation, and marginalization of abortion providers since Roe v. Wade. Hessini and colleagues refined the definition of abortion stigma and outlined a set of priority questions for later research and programmatic efforts. And the Sea Change Program’s Kate Cockrill explored a world without stigma and called for a collective vision to guide researchers, advocates, and practitioners toward this future.

The organizers of the project hope that the issue of Women and Health both inspires and supports other academics interested in studying abortion stigma. As the co-editors told Rewire, “This special issue was just the beginning. We are trying to spark a movement of individuals and organizations working to understand and mitigate abortion stigma at local, regional, and global levels.”

Rather than identifying stigma only as a barrier to getting an abortion, the co-editors say that the research in the special issue of the journal is a move toward understanding what abortion stigma is, what the consequences are, and what advocates can do about it.