Breaking the Silence Around Abortion

I want to talk about abortion. Or more specifically, I want to talk about how we talk about abortion. Two recent developments around abortion have generated lots of buzz in our community. Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP) released the findings of a research project which presents new messages for how activists can talk about abortion, as well as how we can build greater support for abortion. Exhale launched a series of electronic cards to support women who have had abortions. Both RHTP and Exhale are providing the movement with new tools that broaden the dialogue around abortion and address the stigma surrounding it. Now obviously, any tool is only as good as our ability to use it to connect with people meaningfully and to galvanize them to take some action. And yet, I think that Exhale and RHTP present us with interesting opportunities to re-examine how we think about, and ultimately talk about abortion.

RHTP's new messaging strategy highlights what many of us would prefer not to acknowledge—that many people feel ambivalent about abortion. Some of my colleagues fear that this frames abortion negatively and further stigmatizes women who have had abortions. I would argue that in recognizing someone's complicated feelings about abortion we have an opportunity to extend the conversation. The truth is people hold a variety of feelings, values and beliefs about abortion. And until we acknowledge this fact, we will continue to be seen as irrelevant and out of touch with the public. Acknowledging and meeting people where they are establishes our credibility and opens up the conversation, instead of shutting it down

Exhale stirred up controversy by introducing a series of electronic cards that offer sympathy, encouragement and support for women who have had abortions. One card reads, "I think you are strong, smart, thoughtful and caring. I believe in you and your ability to make the right decision. I think you did the right thing." Some activists feel that these e-cards stigmatize abortion further by treating it differently than other medical procedures. Others want to know why there is no card congratulating a woman on her abortion. And yet, what has emerged in the discussions surrounding the cards is not so much the messages of the cards or their appropriateness, but rather that some women want support after an abortion. And they deserve to get it. Sending an e-card is just one more way to do that.

I understand that some believe that by adopting these strategies and tools we somehow concede that abortion is wrong and give the Right more ammunition to restrict abortion. I challenge that orthodoxy. For too long our approach has silenced those who have complicated feelings about abortion and pushed them away from us. And we know that those people are often people of color and young women. Our silencing has the added effect of enforcing a kind of ideological purity test around abortion that even some of us who work in the movement would not pass. If we are going to keep abortion legal and accessible, and support the women who have abortions, we cannot continue to use the same tactics. I think that RHTP and Exhale have taken important steps toward meeting people where they are on abortion and opening up the conversation. These tools may not work for everyone, but they do provide new ways of engaging people around abortion for whom previous efforts have not resonated. And they come not a moment too soon.

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  • kirsten-moore

    Okay, so all that stuff they say at the Oscars has some truth to it –- it does feel good to be acknowledged by your peers. Thank you, Aimee. But of course, I’m not surprised that our survey findings and recommendations resonate with an organization like Pro-Choice Public Education Project. A primary goal for this research was to learn more about African Americans’ and Latinos’ attitudes toward abortion and a woman who decides to end a pregnancy. That goal is important not only to RHTP but to our project partners -– Planned Parenthood of New York City, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. As we look toward the future, we know that the reproductive rights and justice movement will by necessity not look or sound like it has in the past. According to the 2000 US census, approximately 30% of the US population belongs to a racial or ethnic minority –- a trend that is only going to continue to grow.


    At a more pragmatic level, recent headlines in the Los Angeles Times and Daily News remind us that social conservatives have a political strategy of using abortion as a wedge issue with African Americans and Latinos. If we are not prepared to respond in a way that connects with these audiences we will see continued growth in the number of people who believe abortion should be legal but only in certain circumstances or with restrictions. I see our work as building on some the core principles and victories of the reproductive rights movement, but –- to paraphrase Will Rogers –- "even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just stand there." I’m proud to be aligned with other organizations and organizational leaders who are working to create a society that respects and supports the decisions each of us makes about whether and when to have sex, whether and when to become pregnant, and whether and when to become a parent.