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The New Scarlet Letter

Marcy Bloom

Marcy Bloom does U.S. advocacy and capacity building for GIRE - El Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

>When I was in high school, I read "The Scarlet Letter" and was intrigued by its dark and stormy themes. Published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne narrates the story of Hester Prynne, the heroine accused of adultery in Puritan New England who is forced to wear the scarlet letter "A" as a symbol of her sin. Filled with alienation, secrecy, judgment, religious hypocrisy, and self-insight, it captured my interest.
It still does. ‘The Scarlet Letter" is all about hiding the truth.

Today the new scarlet letter is the alienation and stigma that still surrounds abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, thirty-five percent of US women will have at least one abortion before they are forty-five years old. This makes abortion the most common surgical procedure in the country. In addition, 52% of Americans know someone who has had an abortion. Yet, women still whisper when they talk about their abortion experiences - if they talk about them at all.

Marcy Bloom does U.S. advocacy and capacity building for GIRE – El Grupo de Informacion en Reproduccion Elegida/The Information Group on Reproductive Choice.

When I was in high school, I read "The Scarlet Letter" and was intrigued by its dark and stormy themes. Published in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne narrates the story of Hester Prynne, the heroine accused of adultery in Puritan New England who is forced to wear the scarlet letter "A" as a symbol of her sin. Filled with alienation, secrecy, judgment, religious hypocrisy, and self-insight, it captured my interest.

It still does. ‘The Scarlet Letter" is all about hiding the truth.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Today the new scarlet letter is the alienation and stigma that still surrounds abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, thirty-five percent of US women will have at least one abortion before they are forty-five years old. This makes abortion the most common surgical procedure in the country. In addition, 52% of Americans know someone who has had an abortion. Yet, women still whisper when they talk about their abortion experiences – if they talk about them at all.

In a society that talks about everything from the mundane to the sensational, abortion has been the secret that many women have felt uncomfortable discussing openly. Even after 33 years of Roe vs. Wade, the acceptance of abortion as a moral good for women and society still eludes us. The women's movement has not encouraged discussion of the ambivalence that may exist around women's abortion experiences, fearing that such openness could jeopardize the fragility of abortion as a legal right. Even pro-choice politicians and leaders refer to it as tragic (Hillary Clinton) and bad (Kate Michelman) and the need to make it rare. What should be rare, of course, is unplanned pregnancy – not abortion.

In the real world, women and men make thoughtful choices that are sometimes painful and sometimes empowering, but they may have nowhere to go with their feelings, thoughts, and experiences. As Margaret Johnston and Claire Keyes write: "As abortion providers, (we)… view abortion as a transformational experience… the breadth of women's stories …are… complex and nuanced… ….when a women leaves (a clinic), what is on the other side of the door? Frequently, silence." Amie Newman and Elizabeth Knaster of Aradia Women's Health Center state: "There is no ONE way to feel after an abortion…it is time to… speak out."

And so we are.

Joyce Arthur of the Pro-Choice Action Network in Canada eloquently expresses the patriarchal assumptions that create so much of the stigma and secrecy around abortion. These assumptions declare: All women want to be (and should be) mothers. Women who have abortions are "victims" or are "bad" (the madonna/whore archetype).

To break through these disrespectful and Puritanical stereotypes, and to promote conversation, healing, and openness, numerous safe opportunities for women are being created around the country. The goal is for women and men to be able to truly name, explore, and accept the diverse spectrum of feelings about their abortion. Airing and unburdening themselves helps lift the psychological weight that some may be feeling.

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice promotes the revolutionary notion that NOT having a child can be a sacred choice. The organization strives to counter the destructive, sexist, and punitive message of religious fundamentalists that abortion is killing and that having one will send a woman straight to hell.

The after-abortion talk-line Exhale was founded because its executive director, Aspen Baker, felt judged and silenced and saw little connection between the political and moral rhetoric of abortion and her own experience. Backline, as well as The Abortion Conversation Project and I'm Not Sorry all provide opportunities for men and women to find new vocabulary and explore without shame whatever they may be feeling about their abortions. The "Pregnancy Options Workbook: A Resource for Women Making a Difficult Decision" is yet another innovative resource that urges women to link the head and heart feelings and "to remember to listen to your heart …find the right answer for you… trust yourself." The films "The Abortion Diaries" and "I Had An Abortion" are also powerful vehicles that give voice to women and aim to change the negative assumptions around abortion. They also attempt to dispel the two poles that Baker identifies: "‘Relief and empowerment' or ‘guilt and regret.' If you don't fit into either set of feelings, it's as if you are outside the norm. We work on this terrain of (so-called) unacceptable emotions."

Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice best captures this classic mix of abortion feelings when she stated that we can value both the fetus and a woman's right to safe abortion. That may sound contradictory, but it is not for many on a fundamental gut-emotional level. As Johnston says, abortion is about love, sex, power, life, and death. Its powerful emotional truth needs to be expressed without impunity.

The cultural stigma of abortion that dictates the secrecy of the experience must change. Society must continue to examine the moral consequences that befall us when the choice of abortion is not honored. It is, after all, a choice that more than one million women make in the U.S. annually. Above all, abortion needs to be viewed as the most morally responsible and loving choice a woman can make when she believes that this is the best decision for herself. Stigma and secrecy all keep women locked in pain, guilt, and alienation. They serve only as barriers to health, self-knowledge, acceptance, and healing. In the developing world, where abortion is either completely illegal or greatly restricted, it is even more extreme – the stigma of abortion also kills 68, 000 women a year in those countries.

Every man and woman's experience with abortion needs to be honored and integrated into the fabric of their lives. Abortion is a very safe medical procedure. Now we must create a society of respect and openness so that it is safe to talk about.

In "The Scarlet Letter," the Puritan townspeople label the heroine accused of sin "a brazen hussy" and state: "Behold…there is the woman of the scarlet letter…come, therefore, and let us fling mud at (her)."

Rather than mud, they should have offered her understanding and acceptance. It is truly a story that begs for the end to secrecy and for the truth to come to light.

The mud-flinging must end now.