While he was campaigning, President Biden said he’d codify legal abortion in federal law; ensure that public insurance covers abortion; and take federal action to limit harmful state abortion restrictions. He said he’d end both the global and domestic gag rules, which withhold funding from health organizations and providers that offer abortion care or information. He announced that he opposes the Hyde Amendment, a racist provision renewed every year since 1976 that prevents federal money paying for abortion care.
Now that President Biden is in a position to follow through on his policy commitments, he and his administration are also in an excellent position to show leadership in the public conversation about abortion. He’s made the point that he wears a mask to set an example, to show what it looks like to care for the people around you. He can do the same by talking about abortion accurately, respectfully, and actively.
Advocates who worked to help elect Biden and Harris expressed anger when the White House Press Secretary dodged several questions about abortion and when the Biden-Harris White House statement on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade did not include the word abortion. As many advocates advised the Biden administration afterward, it’s okay to say the word abortion. And what’s more, it’s imperative.
Since 2011, anti-abortion politicians have passed hundreds of state-level restrictions on abortion. People who don’t have insurance, whose insurance excludes abortion, or who live in states with only one abortion provider know what a world without Roe v. Wade looks like. Already in 2021, state legislatures in Arizona, Ohio, South Carolina, and others have introduced bills that would devastate abortion access for thousands of people. And they’ve cultivated and weaponized abortion stigma to ram through these restrictions.
Here’s the thing. Across religious faiths, educational backgrounds, income levels, ZIP codes, and even political parties, Americans believe that someone who needs an abortion should be able to get one. For most people, abortion isn’t a hot-button, controversial political issue. 77% of Americans support Roe v. Wade and legal abortion — how many other things do 77% of Americans agree on? Since 1 in 4 people who can get pregnant will have abortions by age 45, everyone knows someone who’s had an abortion. For most people, abortion is just another part of their lives, like other kinds of health care and life decisions. From that perspective, abortion is already normal.
But for something so widely popular and commonly occurring, abortion is still heavily stigmatized. Misinformation from abortion opponents has contributed to aversion to abortion, even among people who support abortion access. Social judgments directed at people who’ve had abortions can be devastating. Stigma is yet another barrier to people getting the care they need, on top of prohibitive costs and travel distance, inadequate insurance, and intentionally obstructive state laws. Stigma makes people feel ashamed and alone, making it harder to talk to friends and family about abortion and ask for the logistical or emotional support that someone might need. Stigma also contributes to those hostile laws and fuels efforts to strip away people’s ability to get care.
It would mean a lot to people who’ve had abortions and abortion providers to hear the president unapologetically speak up for abortion access: Joe Biden has already said that he supports not only the right to abortion but also full, equitable access to care. As Press Secretary Jen Psaki pointed out in a briefing, he is also a devout Catholic. One common, stigmatizing narrative goes that people of faith don’t support abortion, but that’s just not true: President Biden is just one of the more than two-thirds of Catholics nationwide who support legal abortion and oppose repealing Roe v. Wade. What’s more, Catholics have abortions at the same rate as non-Catholics. President Biden can help dispel the myths around people of faith and abortion and make sure more people can get the care they need — and it starts with just saying the word “abortion.”
In his second week in office, President Biden rescinded the global gag rule, also called the Mexico City policy, which prevents health care providers around the world from providing, referring, or educating their patients about abortion. That marks a profound difference in the Biden administration’s approach to abortion care compared to Trump’s: President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are beginning to follow through on their commitment to making sure more people can get abortions when they need them. But good policy isn’t the only improvement we should look for with the new administration.
The language we use about abortion matters. Abortion is health care, and it’s widely popular. The Biden administration can show respect for people who’ve had abortions, provided them, and cared for people who’ve had them in both how they govern and how they talk. We need both: policy and language. It’s time to kick that nasty abortion stigma habit once and for all.