Legislating Abortion Stigma

Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce heard three “experts” on abortion policy testify on H.R. 358, the “Protect Life Act,” one of several bills before Congress right now aimed at reducing access to legal abortion services. The witness panel included two well-known opponents of women’s choice, Helen Alvaré, associate professor of law at George Mason University and Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee; and Sara Rosenbaum, chair of the health policy department at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Only Rosenbaum spoke in defense of protecting U.S. women’s legal right to abortion.

Alvaré, formerly general counsel for the National Council of Catholic Bishops and self-described “born-again Catholic,” said in her testimony that even after 38 years of legal abortion, the United States “is a market that looks like this: 87 percent of U.S. counties with no abortion providers; steadily declining numbers of abortion clinics (which decline began long before clinic prayer vigils and protests began in earnest), largely due to the stigma associated with abortion among physicians and in the medical profession generally….”

Let’s not be coy about this stigma; since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, anti-abortion advocates like Alvaré and Johnson have been working to eliminate abortion in the United States by shaming women and doctors and nurses and their families. Women walking into clinics are taunted. Providers of abortion care are stalked, threatened and assassinated. Even landlords and office suppliers to clinics are harassed. By creating controversy, they created an environment that separates abortion from comprehensive health care for women.

Their strategy was crystal clear in Alvare’s testimony: “…abortion has not attained the status of a standard of health care, a message which might well help begin to reverse the negative role played by legalized abortion in the lives of American women, particularly the most vulnerable women.”

The effect has been insidious, isolating abortion from the broader range of health services, making it easier to isolate and punish those associated with it. There is no other medical procedure that medical students must ask to learn. Abortion is the only medical procedure singled out in the new health-care law. And it is the only medical procedure to be adjudicated by the Supreme Court. Do medical students have to seek out special training to learn to treat penile dysfunction? No.

There is no excuse for a physician, much less an OB/GYN, not to know how to perform an abortion procedure in the simplest, safest way possible. And yet, ninety-seven percent of U.S. family practice residents and 36 percent of OB/GYN residents have no experience providing first-trimester abortions. According to medical students nation-wide, both infertility and Viagra are covered more frequently than abortion in medical school curricula.

The facts show that the ability to terminate a pregnancy that is unhealthy or unintended is a critical part of women’s health: one in three women in the United States will have had an abortion by the time they reach 45. Abortions are needed to save women’s lives every day in the United States and around the world.

Abortion stigma, like other types of stigma, is contagious, leading even otherwise stalwart progressive advocates to hesitate in defense of abortion rights. The stigma surrounding abortion is real and it’s a prime weapon in the opposition’s arsenal; women are demonized for having an abortion and providers for offering comprehensive care.

At Ipas, we see this all over the world. For example, in Zambia, it is believed that women who have had abortions are inflicted with an evil spirit that can be transmitted to anyone who interacts with her.

“…When someone aborts some ‘traditional things’ will affect you…if you stay with the person you may get sick also…you develop something evil. [Others] will not even eat with that person who has aborted; they will not share a plate or visit that person,” said one participant in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia during focus groups Ipas conducted there to assess abortion stigma. The result of such stigma, of course, is that women who have an abortion are socially isolated and shunned from their communities and families in Zambia. How far is the United States from this?

Alvaré and her cohort use stigma to oppress women by creating laws that further stigmatize women and abortion. When we force women to look at unnecessary ultrasounds, we’re legislating stigma. When we force girls to track down missing parents in order to get consent to have abortion that is stigma translated into law. When we isolate abortion from comprehensive reproductive health services, we are institutionalizing stigma. And we know from our work in countries where abortion is restricted or banned that adding barriers to abortion does not lower the need for abortions; they only lead to deaths and injuries for women from unsafe abortions.

In the spate of “abortion ban” bills before Congress, this deliberate effort to institutionalize stigma is taken to a new level to ensure that women will be punished for making difficult decisions — even if they are the best ones for their health, families and future. The government is now creating economic disincentives for abortion; when will we start confining women to their homes? When will we start sending doctors to prison?

At Ipas, we know that stigmatizing abortion is inherently harmful to women’s health — preventing them from getting the care they need. When abortion is inaccessible either legally, financially or physically, women are more likely to turn to the back alley.

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  • beenthere72

    Who picks these ‘experts’ and why was Planned Parenthood not allowed to speak up for themselves at these hearings?    Did Democrats have a say and they chickened out?

  • jodi-jacobson

    In this case the majority (GOP and Tea Party) limited the number of experts that could present from the other side.

  • ldan

    Democratic process, my ass. But what else should we expect from the folks who made the debate around funding PP all about abortion, when none of the funding being discussed would be used for abortion?

  • invalid-0

    The effect has been insidious, isolating abortion from the broader range of health services, making it easier to isolate and punish those associated with it.

    We’re not the ones that isolated it.  Abortion is the only ‘medical procedure’ that has been singled out as a constitutional right.  (A legal anomaly that even pro-choice legal experts can’t explain.)  

  • freetobe

    This coutnry is so  out of touch- insane bigots against everything not straight white and male. I am convinced now.

    This is too all anti-choicers male and female who happen to read this:

    STOP BLAMING WOMEN WHY? I will tell you why from my own experience

    I was raised in a good home with catholic parents. I knew about how to be a GOOD girl. However the BOYS did not get the same message and every boy I went out with was all over me in public or not!! I hated it!!! I just wanted to have a relationship with a guy that is all NO SEX just be treated like a human being for once. I spent every date fighting them off of me until finally I gave up and stopped dating altogether. I even hated and dreaded going out in public! Who was staring at me with their tongues hangin out like a pack of dogs!

    What are you proposing to do with your daughters that you teach chastity to if they want to date? Put chastity belts on them iron ones at that? They could be raped you know. luckily I was not but came real close a couple of times or was just lucky.

    Start teaching BOYS respect  of women from boy hood on because they really need to learn that there is more to life and women than is in their pants!!!

    Until then women need protection and the only thing we have now is BIRTH CONTROL from all the mad dogs!!! Tell it to the BOYS!!!!

  • goatini

    Me too, me too, me too with the ridiculous double standard!!  I too was totally disgusted with the “boys will be boys, can’t blame them for trying!” paradigm of the day.  I mean, there we were as young women, living in abject fear of slut-shaming and the Unwed Mothers Home if we DID participate in sex, being encouraged to PREVENT the boys from getting sex from us at all costs to protect our PURITY, and the constant battles on every single date from the “boys will be boys”.  

    As for myself, I stopped dating in my teens, and didn’t date until I got BC from Planned Parenthood, AND until abortion was legal in my state (pre RvW).  I was 19.  NO WAY was I going to fight the battles with the boys, lose the battles with the boys, and be punished, shamed, have an unwanted pregnancy, forced into involuntary servitude, sent away, and shamed even more, or be forced into a marriage I didn’t want, simply for being an autonomous, sexually active young woman.   I always thought the “purity” thing was a bunch of hooey, since BOYS didn’t get punished for having sex, and as much of it as they could get.  

  • freetobe

    I am having a rather bad day but that just happened to occur to me. brainstorm moment LOL!

    Hey I was no voluptous girl nor did I wear provacative clothing (that was not allowed) so it just proves that no matter what we girls and women do it is ALWAYS are fault. The poor boys just can’t help themselves and so we as good little girls must stop them at all costs. Say What! Give me a break! They are so macho and proud they should just stop themselves unless they just want a mamma to slap there hands. Ok I won’t go there anymore I know there are GOOD men out there somewhere who don’t despise all women because they want fair and just treatment and the right to control their own lives and bodies. Although lately it does not seem like it. SIGH :(

  • forced-birth-rape

    This is what we learn in fundamentalist, evangelical, christianity, you know the republican party.
    Every man is entitled to marry a virgin.
    Once married a wife cannot refuse her husband sex ever, if her husband rapes her it is not rape. If her husband beats her, it is her fault for not being submissive enough.
    The only reason she can get a divorce is adultery.

    Serious this is what they say.

    Here are some books you may want to check out.

    Gods Word To Women By Katharine C. Bushnell. The woman is a genius I love her. This book is hard to read at the beginning but so worth it.

    The Christian Woman set free By Gene Edwards.

    American Taliban by Markos Moulitsas.

  • freetobe

    I was wondering what happened to you. Glad you are back!:)

     I agree I think religion is the most destructive force on earth right now. Men have manipulated it that way in order to manipulate women. if you read the Bible nothing in it makes much sense and things have been added and removed since it’s supposed begginings. beyond that there are seven or more different teachings? No wonder it is  so confusing and so many people misread and mispreach it!

    Those books sound good. I will have to get myself to sit down and just read. Something I have not done in a whille.

    Hope all is well with you  :)

  • ldan

    Possibly because nobody has tried to make other medical procedures illegal? Or at least haven’t managed to do so and have it fought up to the Supreme Court.


    However it became isolated, it’s something that hasn’t entirely worked well. I know some hospitals have abortion services offered as just another part of their standard of care, allowing those priviliged to use such hospitals (generally those with health care) access to abortion minus the intimidation of protestors. My local hospital, for example, has it as part of their women’s health department, so you’re heading in along with women going for prenatal care, pap smears, etc. Very normalizing.