The stigma that surrounds abortion care is devastating, and it has become deeply rooted in our culture, threatening people’s rights, health, safety, and futures. But we can help eradicate this stigma right now. We need to speak openly about abortion as a normal part of reproductive health care, modeling how to avoid passing judgment on people who are seeking this care — and by living our values out loud.
For those of us who have navigated the world in marginalized bodies, identities, or communities, we know what it’s like to be stigmatized. We know the emotional toll and hesitation that can come with seeking medical care when we’re not sure if a health care provider will invalidate our pain because of our race, gender, or something else about who we are and what we need. A common example is when doctors automatically dismiss a patient’s variety of medical symptoms simply based on how much the person weighs, as PPVNV administrative and organizing specialist Hailey Lindsley discusses here.
These experiences make us feel ashamed, silenced, invisible, and powerless. So it comes as no surprise in a society that speaks so judgmentally about abortion — with even supporters relying on only vague descriptions like “the right to choose” — that it’s often difficult to feel empowered when seeking care.
When we work together to deliberately break down stigma, it advances compassionate doctor-patient relationships, better communication, and healthier communities because people are not ashamed to take care of themselves.
In our movement, we’ve come a long way -- defining abortion as the fundamental right that it is. Still, abortion stigma stubbornly persists whether it’s because of internalized bias in media coverage, negative interactions with some health care providers, or even veiled comments by supporters who say they’re “not pro-abortion, but pro-choice”.
Here’s a quick overview of abortion stigma and how we can start erasing it to improve access for everyone. (For a deep dive, we encourage you to visit myabortionmylife.org.)
Addressing abortion stigma in our communities:
Having an abortion is common: According to the Guttmacher Institute, a national reproductive-rights policy research organization, one in four women have an abortion in their lifetime. But public perception is that abortion is much more unusual than it actually is and that's due in large part to the cultural stigma that surrounds abortion care.
When we, as a society, broadcast a message that abortion is only acceptable in certain circumstances, we imply that there is something inherently wrong with this care. Whether it’s criticisms about people who choose to have multiple abortions in their lifetime or that abortion should only be allowed in cases of sexual trauma, the idea that there is a right or wrong way to have is a reflection of stigma.
The common lack of understanding about how prevalent abortion is in this country is compounded by the stigma-driven mass-media portrayal of abortion as “extreme” and something that’s difficult to talk about. The reality is that abortion is a regular part of health care, and it should be discussed that way.
The good news is that there are beginning to be more realistic portrayals of abortion in popular culture. In a gradually increasing number of movies and TV shows, having an abortion is now shown as a clear, acceptable decision, and characters who have abortions are supported.
But it’s not only patients who are affected by abortion stigma and the judgment that comes with it.
Abortion providers often face public disapproval and hostility for making this care available, instead of getting the respect and gratitude that other health care workers receive. This negative attitude is often reflected in a lack of abortion-care education in medical programs, and there is discrimination within many medical practices by those who don’t want or are afraid to be associated with abortion care.
Helpful Tips for erasing abortion stigma:
● First, we change the way we talk about abortion.
Because of longstanding stigma, some folks use coded phrases like a “woman’s right to choose” when what they mean to say is “abortion.”
Not only do these descriptions rely on outdated, gendered language, but by being vague, they allow anti-abortion politicians to flood the public consciousness with an avalanche of lies. Anti-abortion politicians’ and activists’ arguments rely upon inaccurate information and statistics as well as deeply emotional, graphic claims that don’t reflect the reality of abortion care or the people who access it.
Yet too many of those who support the right to abortion respond to this blatant disinformation with platitudes about “choice,” “difficult decisions” and other language rooted in abortion stigma instead of directly correcting the inaccuracies and making clear that abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care.
Rather than equivocating about why a person may seek out an abortion, simply say you support safe and legal access to abortion, free from barriers, for all who want it. The bottom line is that abortion is health care, plain and simple.
● Speaking of outdated and gendered language, we should always acknowledge that it’s not only women who rely on access to abortion care.
Trans and non-binary people also seek access to this vital care, and they often face intersecting stigma associated with their gender that makes abortion access even more difficult.
● Focus on uplifting your values by speaking up.
It’s simply not our place to judge what another person chooses to do with their body. The goal is to have reproductive freedom and a medical system where people are able to decide if, when, and how they choose to start a family. So when you hear someone say something at the dinner table that’s based on abortion stigma — even if they support abortion rights but use only those coded phrases — take the opportunity to start a conversation about it.
Staying true to your values and sharing them with others is a great way to approach folks who may be supportive but still feel uncomfortable talking about abortion.
Effectively addressing abortion stigma is a long process that requires a profound cultural shift. The good news is we are well on our way thanks to the hard work of people like you who take the time to talk to their friends, families, and communities about why protecting the right to abortion care is so important.
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