Recently at Planned Parenthood, we have been talking a lot about abortion stigma across our affiliates. This is thanks to the work that Planned Parenthood Federation of America is doing alongside organizations like The Sea Change Program which focus on abortion stigma. Sea Change defines abortion stigma as “a shared [mis]understanding that abortion is morally wrong and/or socially unacceptable. The stigma of abortion manifests within multiple levels, including media, law and policy, institutions, communities, and individuals.” While this definition may seem a little hefty, basically it is saying that shame and judgment about abortion combine in different places in our society to create the shared idea that abortion is wrong, and that this judgment and shame negatively affects individuals who seek or have had abortions. And with 1 in 3 women having an abortion during their lifetime, and we need to work to end the silence and judgment so they don’t have to carry around other people’s judgment.
When we think about how abortion is portrayed in our media, how it is talked about amongst our peers, and current restrictive laws that are being passed regarding abortion, this definition makes sense. All of these negative forces combine to make access to abortion more difficult. Practical changes, like laws which create waiting periods, put extra burdens on people who are trying to access abortion. Media representations may present people who have abortions as being “in the wrong” or may not even discuss abortion as an option when a character has an unintended pregnancy. People around us, and unfortunately sometimes we as individuals, may talk about abortion in ways that place blame on those who have them (i.e. “If she had just used birth control she wouldn’t be going through this right now!”) Judgment like this from a loved one or peer can be especially harmful.
Judgment and shame don’t work to stop abortions, but what they do is create an emotionally desctrutive space that prevents people from accessing the support they need. Medical decisions are personal, and don’t affect outsiders. We can help end stigma by being careful about the ways we talk about abortion, and making it clear that lots of people are affected by those who judge and shame!