You know someone who has had an abortion. We all do. Friends, family members, colleagues, and even our much-loved celebrities—people who have had an abortion are everywhere. In fact, one in three women in the UK and the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime, with similar rates seen across the globe. Yet, outside of often polarizing political debates, many of us avoid talking about abortion at all. We shy away from the topic because it is taboo, stigmatized, and shrouded in secrecy, which creates the illusion that abortion isn’t a common, everyday occurrence. When we do talk about it, we can find ourselves at a loss for how to tackle it respectfully, accurately, and without perpetuating stigma.
That’s why in 2015 it was a welcome change when #ShoutYourAbortion trended on Twitter and gained instant traction on social media. Started in the United States by pro-choice activists Amelia Bonow, Kimberly Morrison, and Lindy West, the hashtag turned into a global campaign, with people everywhere seizing the opportunity to break free of the usual rules telling them to keep quiet about their abortion.
But it’s not just on those who have had an abortion to tell their stories. Filmmakers, television producers, and members of the media also have a responsibility to honestly represent abortion as a normal part of people’s lives. Happily, 2015 was also a year in which we saw some of our favorite TV dramas introduce abortion storylines without the usual hysteria or dramatic change of heart that is usually written in. At the end of the year, Scandal’s season finale was hailed as being a refreshingly realistic depiction of an abortion, a rarity in mainstream television and film.
However, much more common is when media coverage on abortion, even when trying to be balanced and objective, uses language and images loaded with judgment, stigma, and misconceptions. In a recent issue of Newsweek examining the state of abortion in the United States, the cover featured a computer-enhanced image of a fetus, completely misrepresenting the reality of what a fetus looks like when an abortion is most likely to occur (before 12 weeks’ gestation).
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So the challenge lies not just with getting people to talk about abortion in normal, everyday conversation, but also in changing the way we talk about abortion to avoid perpetuating the stigma, misinformation, and misconceptions surrounding it. However, this is easier said than done. Communication around abortion can be difficult and complex, given the nuances and occasional controversy.
In other fields, significant attention has been paid to the language, images, and terminology used, which can lead to stigma, for example, with regard to issues such as mental health, LGBTQI rights, and HIV. However, the language and images we use when we discuss abortion are yet to receive such focused attention. We have internalized common terms and phrases that perpetuate the harmful stigmatization of people who have an abortion. From value-laden phrases like “Get rid of it” implying that abortion is a flippant action taken without thought or feeling, to inaccurate references to pregnant women as mothers regardless of whether or not they have or want to have children, to misnomers that deny the reality of most abortions, such as images of distraught-looking women, abortion stigma is commonplace in the media and in our everyday conversations.
But enough of what not to do. After identifying a real need for direction on how to communicate on abortion in a clear and non-stigmatizing way, the International Planned Parenthood Federation has published a comprehensive guide providing advice on how to talk about abortion. From the guide, here are five golden rules of talking about abortion:
- Be honest and accurate. Focus on the realities of abortion as a part of people’s lives; get your facts straight and counteract misinformation.
- Be non-judgmental. Individuals have the right to make decisions about their own bodies; no one abortion is more or less “justified” than another.
- Focus on the individual. Maintain a focus on the health and rights of the pregnant person in all messaging; she is the one most impacted by the decision whether or not to continue the pregnancy.
- Recognize diversity. No two abortions and no two women are the same; abortion occurs in all socioeconomic and cultural settings and is experienced by a wide range of people of different backgrounds and values.
- Avoid stigmatizing language and images. It is easy to unintentionally stigmatize abortion; think carefully about the language and images and refer to the communication guide for more advice.
You might think that this is all just irrelevant squabbling over semantics. But the more we tell women they are mothers before they have chosen if and when they want to be mothers, the more we perpetuate gender roles that are harmful to gender equality. The more we focus on the fetus, the less we think about the pregnant woman, her needs, and her human right to bodily autonomy. And the more we use judgmental language, the less likely women will be to turn to their friends and family to talk about their abortion, removing them from vital support networks.
In 2016, we need to continue to talk about abortion, shout our abortions, and engage in measured, fact-based dialogue with those we disagree with on the subject. However, it is equally important that we hold these conversations using rights-based, stigma-free language and imagery that represents the reality of abortion—a common, necessary, and responsible choice for millions of women.