Reducing Abortion Stigma: Problems and Strategies


Yesterday at Ms. Magazine online, Jessica Mack suggested that activists in the abortion rights movement use a tactic from the global HIV/AIDS movement: asking celebrities to sign on as our spokespeople. That, she said, is one key to reducing the seemingly insurmountable stigma associated with abortion. But what celebrity will support abortion rights when there’s so much stigma associated with the procedure?

Coincidentally, just that morning a friend forwarded me a fascinating research paper that begins to tackle similar questions. Abortion Stigma: A Reconceptualization of Constituents, Causes, and Consequences, by Dr. Alison Norris (et al), explores the various entangled elements that produce this stigma and also breaks down how it impacts different groups of people. Thankfully, the authors also make recommendations for how to begin to destigmatize abortion.

Before tackling possible solutions to abortion stigma, let’s define the problem. Dr. Norris (et al) cite a separate study that defines abortion stigma as “a negative attribute ascribed to women who seek to terminate a pregnancy that marks them, internally or externally, as inferior to ideals of womanhood.” The researchers make sure to emphasize that there is no universal abortion stigma experience, just like there is no universal abortion experience.

Unlike several other studies, Dr. Norris and her research team investigate how this stigma impacts not only women who have abortions, but people who work in abortion care and those who actively support abortion rights. Based on that investigative research, they have several proposals for desitmatizing abortion. I’ve highlighted some of the more important aspects of each point, but I recommend reading the entire article if you have a chance.

“1. Normalize abortion within public discourse

Silence is an important mechanism for individuals coping with abortion stigma; people hope that if no one knows about their relationship to abortion, they cannot be stigmatized. Nevertheless, even a concealed stigma may lead to an internal experience of stigma and health consequences (Quinn & Chaudio, 2009)…Abortion providers, like women who have had abortions and those who support them, may need targeted supports and outlets. We should engage popular media…in the effort to remind people that abortion is common and normal.”

What does this mean for us on a day-to-day basis? We need to do a better job of holding the mainstream media accountable for portraying abortion accurately and realistically (we need a pro-choice version of GLAAD!). We need to support the efforts of organizations like Exhale and Backline that provide specific, intimate support for women who’ve had abortions and organizations like the Abortion Care Network, who provide support for abortion providers.

“2. Be aware of language used within community of abortion supporters

The prochoice community, researchers, and advocates need to avoid language that endorses ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ reasons for having abortions. Prochoice people should not distance themselves from abortion, invoking ‘safe, legal, and rare’ language, which perpetuates stigma (Weitz, 2010).”

We need to honestly address the good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy that we’re all guilty of perpetuating. All abortions are created equal. When we’re talking to the press or to our legislators about abortion, the message is often, “the majority of women abort in the first trimester!” Or, “it wasn’t her fault! She was raped!” This enforces the damning idea that abortions are ok for some women, those few “good” women who didn’t mean to get pregnant, who had an “acceptable” reason for an abortion. When we say that every woman deserves to have access to abortion care, we need our messaging to match. A woman who was raped deserves the same access to an abortion as a woman who is 28 weeks pregnant. Unless the pro-choice movement is fighting for the rights of ALL women to have abortions, we’re settling for less than women deserve, not to mention sending mixed messages to our supporters and to the women for whom we advocate.

In other sections of the article, Dr. Norris and her colleagues suggest strengthening abortion training programs so that more clinicians are able to perform the procedure. They also suggest conducting further research into abortion stigma to better understand how it impacts abortion access. This is where a celebrity could come in. If she/he wants to fund more training programs and research, I don’t think anyone would say no to that.

The stigma surrounding abortion is arguably the most salient factor in keeping celebrities from coming out in direct support of abortion rights. If we are serious about reducing this stigma, we need to investigate and invest in methods that work. Above all, we need to make sure to prioritize the specific people that abortion stigma impacts directly: women who have abortions, abortion providers, and abortion rights activists.

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  • princess-jourdan

    Way ahead of you, Steph.  I have already been putting this theory into practice for about a year now.  I used to be Miss Illinois, and I was the very first beauty pageant queen to ever come forward and publicly talk about having had an abortion years ago.  I may not have been as big a celebrity as say Ashley Judd or Whoopi Goldberg, but state and national level beauty pageant queens have enough of a celebrity status to our titles that we can garner attention and enlist support on the issues we advocate.  I discovered long ago that silence does breed stigma and that the best way to combat it is to openly and frankly discuss abortion in everyday terms.  I quickly discovered that once you let it be known that you are not ashamed of your abortion, people are less likely to try to shame or condemn you for it.  I think they like to do that to women who appear to carry some shame over their abortion because they probably seem like an easier target.  It’s a lot harder to berate a woman who is openly honest and unashamed about her abortion and lets it be known that she isn’t going to take any of your shit.  The people who once suspected that I had had an abortion and used to call me “baby killer” and
    murderering whore” suddenly shut up and never said another word about my abortion once I publicly came forward about it as Miss Illinois.  And once I began publicly talking about my experience, several of my own friends suddenly opened up to me and admitted that they too had had abortions before.  My honesty and open discussion inspired and bred honesy and open discussion from other women!!  If we could get more women to get up the courage to openly talk about their own abortion experiences, think of how many other women they could inspire to do the same thing!  It could spread far and wide and grow into something really big!  And I think these anti-choice politicians would have a much harder time selling and passing anti-choice laws if they had an entire population of women talking openly and honestly about their experiences with abortion.  They wouldn’t be so successful getting these laws passed once there is less stigma surrounding this issue.  If you would like to learn more about my work to break downt the stigma surrounding abortion as Miss Illinois, visit my website at http://www.miss-illinois.com

  • freetobe

    We can all learn a lot from this. What a wonderful thing you are doing!! It is more than past time we start talking about this openly.

    I remember I got into an arguement with a Chinese American student a while ago about racism. In my comment that she responded to i suggested that racism is a thing of the past and that I was not raised a racist. I can’t remember the exact dailogue but clearly I hit a nerve with her. She basically taught me that no by any means can we just ignore or be passive about any form of hatred and bigotry and basically that is what many of these pro-life people are doing to women they are condemning us as a vile group of non-humans that cannot accept our “role” as baby machines. That we should all be Marytrs because God said so. That is why it is so important to keep up the fight and dailogue even if it means we may lose a few so called friends along the way. Life is not worth living if you cannot stand up for what you believe and fight for it.

  • clydweb

    For bringing attention to this – I hope planned Planned Parentood (3% of services) will take notice!

  • angieantitheist

    I find that even when talking about my own 5th-week abortion, I have to conciously add “and off course, there’s nothing morally wrong with having an abortion later than I did. I’m glad I was able to get mine so early because it was cheaper and there were fewer complications, NOT because it makes me a better person.” 

  • angieantitheist

    I know the pageant scene is pretty conservative. Thanks for taking a big personal-celebrity risk by talking about a medical procedure that 1 in 3 of us will use. :)

  • karenaldridge

    You are a hero

  • beenthere72

    I get emails asking for donations all the time, and do occassionally donate when I can.   But I jumped into action sooner than later when I got an email this week from Planned Parenthood with a letter from Amy Poehler.   (also donated to DCCC because of the email that said: let’s make Boehner cry!  LOL)

  • wendy-banks

    Hi Angie!

  • joan

    Princess Jourdan wrote: “once I began publicly talking about my experience, several of my own friends suddenly opened up to me and admitted that they too had had abortions before.” This is so important. Each time a woman speaks out, she feels the experience that she is not alone or an oddball. When we feel that one-in-three American women have abortions in their lifetimes, and we find out the women who have abortions are as diverse as are women in our country, then abortion stigma is diminished and has less power over us. Feminism is born in women talking with other women about the experiences in our lives.

  • elburto

    Yep, telling a person of colour that “there is no racism” is exactly like pro-liars claiming that women, another oppressed class, should just sit down and shut their mouths. People of colour do not have the luxury of being “colour blind”, just as women do not have male privilege.

  • princess-jourdan

    I recently posted an entry on my blog about this very same subject. It was inspired by an argument I recently had with a cousin of mine who is very anti-choice and is Hell-bent on making me feel guilty and ashamed for having an abortion. Unfortunately, it got some very nasty reviews. My cousin has been directing people to visit my blog entry and post hateful comments underneath it. I’ve deleted them all, but I even had one threatening to “end me” for fighting back against my cousin’s hateful “Christian” judgment. Typical anti-choice mentality…threaten those who don’t do as you say. And of course I also got the typical anti-choice “Why didn’t you just give your baby up for adoption instead of denying it a chance to live?” as if adoption is the magical answer to everything. If you’d like to read my blog entry, it’s at http://missillinois.blogspot.com/2011/06/let-he-who-is-without-sin-case-first.html And if you like, feel free to post a supportive comment beneath it to combat the barrage of hateful comments I got earlier!! :)

  • arekushieru

    High praise from a twitter celeb, such as yourself, Angie!  :)