Commentary Abortion

Combating Abortion Stigma Requires More Than Just Storytelling

Anu Kumar

Certainly, sharing abortion stories can be a powerful act and may reduce self-stigma. But I fear that it distracts from the structural inequalities of race, poverty, age, and education by placing too much emphasis on the individual. And I worry that it lets our politicians and policymakers off the hook.

The anniversary of Roe v. Wade is often a time to take stock of where American women are in their struggle for reproductive freedom. We know that the number of restrictive laws passed at the state level is at a record high. We know that women in the United States are one Supreme Court decision away from disaster. And we know that actual access to safe abortion care has eroded to a frightening extent, such that poor, minority, and young women are especially in danger of being denied their reproductive rights. Many attribute this state of affairs to the fact that abortions, the women who have them, and abortion providers are deeply stigmatized.

I’ve been ruminating on an article about abortion stigma for months now. It’s a familiar topic for me, certainly, since my colleagues and I introduced the topic to the reproductive health and rights community. As the issue took off in the academic arena, advocacy efforts, and public discourse, I started to worry that it was being inflated. So in 2013, I wrote the piece “Everything Is Not Abortion Stigma” for the journal Women’s Health Issues, in which I expressed fear that the concept was in danger of growing “so large … that it may mask deeply rooted inequalities.” Morgan Meneses-Sheets echoed this general idea in her great post on Rewire last week.

I still believe abortion stigma is deeply important; understanding it and how it is manifests remains a top research priority for Ipas. In our work, we are learning that abortion stigma is deeply contextual and so far does not appear amenable to generic mitigation strategies. Other scholars are applying the stigma lens to abortion jurisprudence in the United States, while still others are looking at whether contact with women who have had abortions reduces stigma. These are all intriguing and important questions that will, I hope, shed light on why abortion remains a demonized procedure.

Abortion stigma is definitely complex. But is the stigma surrounding abortion the cause or the effect of all the restrictions here and abroad—restrictions that are so rooted in inequality? I say you can’t think about abortion stigma without considering the intersections of race, class, sex, and ultimately, patriarchy.

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And you can’t rely on one strategy to be the magic bullet in tackling any of these issues. I worry that as a community, we may be putting too much stock in storytelling as an abortion stigma mitigation strategy. The theory is that if women share their abortion stories publicly, it will help normalize the procedure and reduce stigma. Certainly, sharing stories can be a powerful act and may reduce self-shaming. But are we making women alone responsible for stigma reduction? I fear that it distracts from the structural inequalities of race, poverty, age, and education by placing too much emphasis on the individual. And I worry that it lets our politicians and policymakers off the hook. Indeed, one could argue that nearly all policies—from the Helms Amendment to TRAP legislation—that limit or restrict access to abortion care are rooted in stigma. No amount of storytelling is going to reverse them.

Even if public opinion is shifted by increased storytelling, it does not mean that our politicians will listen to the public and enact legislation that mirrors this opinion. We have seen this time and again with issues such as gun control, sex education, and, yes, abortion.

At the heart of abortion stigma is a set of beliefs about gender: beliefs that all women must become mothers, that female sexuality is dangerous and must be harnessed, and that women acting alone do not have the moral capacity to make life-or-death decisions. In order to reduce abortion stigma, we must address the cultural norms that perpetuate the patriarchy. Gender norms are also not monolithic, but dependent on culture, history, economics, ethnicity, and much else. An American middle-class white woman’s physical autonomy is valued differently from that of an African-American woman. Similarly, the physical autonomy of woman of a lower caste in India is less secure than that of her higher caste counterpart.

It has been said that reproductive rights are fundamental to women’s human rights, and that without the ability to control one’s fertility one can control little else. Political power for women remains limited in the United States; women are still paid less than men for equal work; maternity leave, much less parental leave, is not a right for workers; and the list goes on. When gender equality is a norm in the United States, then we may start to see a change in abortion stigma. Until then, we must continue to litigate, advocate, educate, and, yes, tell our stories, so that we can transform ourselves and our society into one where women are valued.

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