Yesterday at Ms. Magazine online, Jessica Mack suggested that activists in the abortion rights movement use a tactic from the global HIV/AIDS movement: asking celebrities to sign on as our spokespeople. That, she said, is one key to reducing the seemingly insurmountable stigma associated with abortion. But what celebrity will support abortion rights when there’s so much stigma associated with the procedure?
Coincidentally, just that morning a friend forwarded me a fascinating research paper that begins to tackle similar questions. Abortion Stigma: A Reconceptualization of Constituents, Causes, and Consequences, by Dr. Alison Norris (et al), explores the various entangled elements that produce this stigma and also breaks down how it impacts different groups of people. Thankfully, the authors also make recommendations for how to begin to destigmatize abortion.
Before tackling possible solutions to abortion stigma, let’s define the problem. Dr. Norris (et al) cite a separate study that defines abortion stigma as “a negative attribute ascribed to women who seek to terminate a pregnancy that marks them, internally or externally, as inferior to ideals of womanhood.” The researchers make sure to emphasize that there is no universal abortion stigma experience, just like there is no universal abortion experience.
Unlike several other studies, Dr. Norris and her research team investigate how this stigma impacts not only women who have abortions, but people who work in abortion care and those who actively support abortion rights. Based on that investigative research, they have several proposals for desitmatizing abortion. I’ve highlighted some of the more important aspects of each point, but I recommend reading the entire article if you have a chance.
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“1. Normalize abortion within public discourse
Silence is an important mechanism for individuals coping with abortion stigma; people hope that if no one knows about their relationship to abortion, they cannot be stigmatized. Nevertheless, even a concealed stigma may lead to an internal experience of stigma and health consequences (Quinn & Chaudio, 2009)...Abortion providers, like women who have had abortions and those who support them, may need targeted supports and outlets. We should engage popular media...in the effort to remind people that abortion is common and normal.”
What does this mean for us on a day-to-day basis? We need to do a better job of holding the mainstream media accountable for portraying abortion accurately and realistically (we need a pro-choice version of GLAAD!). We need to support the efforts of organizations like Exhale and Backline that provide specific, intimate support for women who’ve had abortions and organizations like the Abortion Care Network, who provide support for abortion providers.
“2. Be aware of language used within community of abortion supporters
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The prochoice community, researchers, and advocates need to avoid language that endorses ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ reasons for having abortions. Prochoice people should not distance themselves from abortion, invoking ‘safe, legal, and rare’ language, which perpetuates stigma (Weitz, 2010).”
We need to honestly address the good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy that we’re all guilty of perpetuating. All abortions are created equal. When we're talking to the press or to our legislators about abortion, the message is often, "the majority of women abort in the first trimester!" Or, "it wasn't her fault! She was raped!" This enforces the damning idea that abortions are ok for some women, those few "good" women who didn't mean to get pregnant, who had an "acceptable" reason for an abortion. When we say that every woman deserves to have access to abortion care, we need our messaging to match. A woman who was raped deserves the same access to an abortion as a woman who is 28 weeks pregnant. Unless the pro-choice movement is fighting for the rights of ALL women to have abortions, we're settling for less than women deserve, not to mention sending mixed messages to our supporters and to the women for whom we advocate.
In other sections of the article, Dr. Norris and her colleagues suggest strengthening abortion training programs so that more clinicians are able to perform the procedure. They also suggest conducting further research into abortion stigma to better understand how it impacts abortion access. This is where a celebrity could come in. If she/he wants to fund more training programs and research, I don’t think anyone would say no to that.
The stigma surrounding abortion is arguably the most salient factor in keeping celebrities from coming out in direct support of abortion rights. If we are serious about reducing this stigma, we need to investigate and invest in methods that work. Above all, we need to make sure to prioritize the specific people that abortion stigma impacts directly: women who have abortions, abortion providers, and abortion rights activists.