Abortion rates are on the decline, and I’ve seen such a range of responses from the news media – most of which made me squirm.
First, let’s consider how conservative media outlets discuss this decline in abortion rates. Predictably, many outlets attributed the drop to restrictive (and harmful) abortion laws, regressive sexual health education policies that enable the teaching of misinformation, and the forced closure of abortion-providing clinics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, conservative outlets appear to be celebrating this statistic because they view it as evidence for the effectiveness of their efforts. This is factually incorrect.
Among more moderate news sources, there was also celebration that abortion rates were down. My guess is that you, the reader, may also have had this reaction. I want to challenge you to answer why? Is it because we all want fewer abortions? If so, we are implying that abortion, albeit necessary, is a necessary evil? An implication with which I and Planned Parenthood disagree with.
Let me be clear: celebrating the drop in abortion rates stigmatizes abortion for everyone, but especially for those who have had one.
Abortion stigma can be defined as a shared understanding that something is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable about abortion. Here’s an example. Ask yourself: would I be willing to ask my boss for Friday off work to have a root canal? I’m guessing that the answer was yes for most readers. Now ask yourself: would I be willing to ask my boss for Friday off work for an abortion? Did you have an immediate, visceral reaction to that question? Did you want to justify by saying, “well abortion is just...different"?
That's the power of stigma. It can make you think that abortion is somehow different - to prevent you from being able to even speak its name.
And while we might celebrate a drop in the rate of root canals performed, it wouldn’t be because root canals are a stigmatized procedure. Hopefully, the drop would be due to better access to dental hygiene and preventative care--the real thing to celebrate being the drop in dental disease.
Abortion stigma can appear in obvious ways such as a fake clinic (crisis pregnancy center) claiming that abortion causes breast cancer or infertility (both claims are false). But can also show up in less obvious ways. For instance, a common talking point of both conservative and liberal politicians is that abortion is “safe, legal, and rare.” I think we’re all in agreement with the first two statements, but “rare” is where I struggle.
For the same reason that I don’t celebrate the dip in abortion rates, I don’t need abortion to be rare. Abortion, just like insulin and root canals – is medicine. Medicine should be available to those who need it. Not moralized and stigmatized.
Just as we might celebrate the drop in dental disease and infection, we would only celebrate if it meant that people had better access to preventative dental care. We would not be cheering if politicians were trying to force a drop in the rate of root canals by making root canals harder to access.
We can attribute the actual reason for the fall in abortion rates to the fall in both unintended and intended pregnancy in general. For this, we can say #ThanksObama because Obama era Affordable Care Act protections (along with Title X) have allowed people who can get pregnant all over the country to access birth control at little or no cost.
So again, let me be clear: The headlines shouldn’t read: abortion at its lowest in years. They should read: unwanted and unintended pregnancy are at their lowest in years -- thanks in large part to the availability of birth control. A bit clunkier to read, I know. But, it’s much more accurate, and importantly, does not inadvertently stigmatize abortion.
It is academically and journalistically irresponsible to state that more access to birth control = fewer abortions. Birth control or the lack thereof is not the cause of abortions. It is, however, very closely correlated with unwanted pregnancy.
At a time when the birth control mandate under the ACA is constantly under attack and Planned Parenthood nationwide has been forced out of the Title X program, I expect to see rates of unwanted pregnancy increase. Likely, this will mean more abortions. Again, not a bad or good thing. Just a thing. The negative part of this statement is the fact that millions of people will lose access to affordable and accessible birth control. Birth control is healthcare and healthcare is a right.
It is unfair for conservative politicians to claim that they want to “rid the country of abortion” while also gutting comprehensive sexual health education, cutting funding for legitimate reproductive health outlets (such as Planned Parenthood), and making abortion harder and harder to access – but we are all already aware of those hypocrisies.
What bothers me now is that even the most “reproductive health friendly” news outlets fall into the abortion stigma trap. Words matter. They especially matter to the 1 in 4 Americans who can get pregnant who will have an abortion in their lifetimes. The rise and fall of the demand for abortion should not be met with celebration of despair. At most, it should be viewed as a way to examine current policies and if they are working for the American public.
I propose that we change that popular talking point to this: Abortion should be safe, legal, and available on demand.