Commentary Abortion

Imagining a World Without Abortion Stigma

Steph Herold & Kate Cockrill

In order to guide our activist priorities, we must envision what our long-term goal of a world without abortion stigma would ultimately look like.

In honor of the Global Day of Action for Safe and Legal Abortion on September 28, activists and leaders are uniting to combat abortion stigma. This worldwide belief that abortion is socially or morally unacceptable emerges in media outlets, health-care institutions, and restrictive legislation, all of which shape community attitudes and stereotypes about abortion.

The fight against this cycle of shame takes place on a number of fronts, from individual activism all the way up to global policy changes. Given our current political climate, it is easy to become stuck in the short-term struggle to make reproductive care safe, legal, and accessible. But in order to guide our activist priorities, help prevent burnout and compassion fatigue, and keep us focused on our long-term goals, we must also visualize what a world without abortion stigma would ultimately look like. Such a framework would prioritize:

Visibility. Unlike other types of health-care or family-planning decisions, abortion is often invisible in health institutions and public dialogue, meaning that many people underestimate how common the procedure is and how many people provide it. If abortion were not stigmatized, it would be a clear topic within all medical training and sex education; the media would cover the practice as a normal, manageable, and social experience; and abortion care would be easy to find in any community.

Connection. Shame drives feelings of personal isolation. In a world without abortion stigma, people would be able to make connections across all reproductive experiences: abortion, adoption, miscarriage, infertility, single parenthood, teen parenting, parenting while LGBTQ, and more. As those individual relationships blossom, in turn, the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement would unite with and learn from those fighting for other forms of social justice.

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Openness. At Sea Change, abortion providers and people who have had abortions often tell us that it can be hard for them to speak openly about the procedure because they fear judgment. Ideally, schools and community centers would provide spaces for students and members to share their reproductive experiences, in addition to training others to listen to such stories with empathy. As a result, mentioning abortion would no longer shut down a conversation; it would open up the possibility for people to discuss the complexities of sex, love, and family creation. Furthermore, providers would not feel the need to conceal their work out of fear of inciting violence. Instead, they’d be fully supported and uplifted by their colleagues, friends, and neighbors.

Integration. In many areas, abortion care is available only in specialized clinics, if at all. The procedure should be fully integrated into the health-care system, through which all clinicians able to provide the service would do so in a compassionate, kind matter. Every medical professional, for that matter, would feel competent and capable of discussing the subject in a patient-centric, unbiased way. In countries without socialized health care, abortion coverage would be integrated into each insurance plan—and it would include comprehensive counseling, the provision of doulas, and the facilitation of any emotional or physical support.

Empowerment. Ultimately, communities would feel empowered to advocate for their needs and make lasting, long-term political change. Elected officials could fully disclose their experiences with abortion without fear of retribution or reputation damage. In turn, advocates would mobilize people across the country to support those leaders. And the policies enacted would allow individuals to have the resources, rights, and respect to make the best reproductive decisions for their families.

The day-to-day global fight for abortion access is critical, of course. At the same time, we need to create opportunities to step back and envision the society for which we’re aiming. By doing so, we can hold our officials, leaders, and fellow activists accountable to such a model—and continue hammering out a step-by-step path toward achieving it.

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