Last week I had the privilege of participating in a panel called Demystifying Abortion, an event that aimed to shift the conversation away from the politics of abortion into the day to day reality of reproductive health care provision here in NYC. I was on the panel representing NYAAF, the abortion fund here, and joining me was an abortion provider, an abortion doula, a woman who’d had an abortion, a representative from Exhale, and a clinic escort. While the panel did a lot to shed light on the who, what, when, where, and why of abortion, it also did something I didn’t expect: it revealed just how much the pro-choice movement itself stigmatizes abortion.
Stigma manifested itself in a number of ways. For one, the abortion doula decided to use this quote to describe why women have abortions: “A woman wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.” Unbeknownst to the doula, this quote is from the anti-choice group Feminists for Life, and is meant to describe a desperation that is destructive, a desperation that leaves a woman alive but (literally) hurt by the experience. Did the doula know the context of this quote? No, and I’m sure she thought she was somehow making women who have abortions sympathetic to the audience. Regardless of the quote’s origins, do we really want to discuss abortion in the context of self-mutilation? To do so is misleading, manipulative, and harmful.
The doula wasn’t the only person to perpetuate abortion stigma. During the Q&A after the panel, several women shared their abortion stories. One woman in particular mentioned that after listening to the representative from Exhale, she felt guilty for not feeling regret after her abortion. I have no doubt that Exhale provides support to women regardless of how they feel after their abortions, but there is something not quite right with your messaging if you’re making women question the validity of their emotional responses, positive or negative.
What surprised me most about the event (though it really shouldn’t have surprised me) was how much both the provider and the doula emphasized that most abortions are not later abortions, and that later abortions are particularly icky. The provider casually mentioned that some people pass out when they see later abortions (giving absolutely no context as to why, leaving the audience to assume the worst), the doula emphasized that all women who have later abortions cry their eyes out before and afterwards. Is it true that some people pass out and some women cry? Of course. But to lay out these statements as universal truths is misinformation, and stigmatizes later abortions (what could be so bad that people pass out??) and the women who have them (what could be so bad that they cry all the time?). What could’ve been useful: some science on later abortions and the women who have them. The truth? Most people don’t pass out. Some women cry, some women don’t. Making later abortions sound like gruesome tragedies stigmatizes the women who need them and the clinicians who perform them.
I understand why we emphasize that the majority of abortions are first trimester abortions from a PR standpoint–most people are grossed out by the idea of later abortions, I get it. And the reality is that most abortions happen in the first trimester. But does emphasizing this over and over do anything besides stigmatize later abortions? Shouldn’t we have empathy, respect, and compassion for all women who need abortions no matter when they have them? We do our movement, and the women we serve, a disservice when we say that an early abortion is ideal and a later abortion is tragic or bad. In doing so, we lose the nuance of why women have abortions, of their personal stories, and instead focus on what makes us comfortable or uncomfortable. It’s not about us. It’s about the women who have abortions.
I don’t want to give the impression that this event was a disaster. In fact, it was the exact opposite. What could be better than an enthusiastic and eager audience listening to experts talk about the ins and outs of getting an abortion? With that said, I do not think the pro-choice movement is absolved from thinking about how we perpetuate certain myths and stigma surrounding abortion. It’s not just the anti-choice folks who succeed in this role. We clearly have some work to do on our own.
Note: To clarify, this post is not meant as a criticism of the work of any of the organizations represented by individuals on this panel. Rather, this post is a critique of abortion stigma, and is meant to cast a light on how pervasive this stigma is, as even members of the pro-choice movement ourselves perpetuate it.