Forced Silence: Abortion Stigma

Stigma is “an attribute that is deeply discrediting,” which results in a person being “reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tained, discounted one.” (This according to Erving Goffman; see the slide set referenced below from Innovating Education.)

In American society, abortion care often operates within a narrative of shame, isolation and secrecy, stigmatizing those who access abortion care as well as those who provide it. Based on epidemiological data, we know that in the United States 1 in 4 women will have an abortion by the age of 45 and that 6 in 10 of those women already have children. However, abortion stigma results in a self-perpetuating cycle: people don’t discuss their abortions to avoid being shamed and stigmatized, which makes it seem that abortion is more rare and therefore aberrant, which reinforces the stigma. Many movements in recent years have focused on reducing stigma around abortion through story telling and public discourse on abortion care.

New to the term “abortion stigma”?

  • Abortion Stigma: What is it and how does it affect women’s health? | Lori Freedman

    This slide deck provides an introduction to what abortion stigma is and how it impacts medical care. It was produced by an organization called Innovating Education at the University of California San Francisco, which produces evidence-based educational materials on abortion and contraceptive care.

For all the TedX fans:

For a reminder that the decision to have an abortion does not need an explanation:

  • We Don’t Owe Anyone An Explanation: Two Abortion Stories | Candice Russell | May 30, 2017

    This excerpt from Comics for Choice demonstrates that people’s dynamic life situations inform their reproductive decisions. Through one person’s story of deciding to have two abortions at different times and in two distinct life circumstances, they portray that the decision to have an abortion results from diverse life experiences. Further, this piece makes the argument that no one ever owes anyone else an explanation for their decision to have an abortion.

Reducing the Stigma Through Storytelling:

  • Abortion Storytelling: Web Video Series

    In this series, people who have accessed abortion care, as well as one physician who provides abortion care, tell their stories and ponder what the United States might look like without Roe v. Wade mandating abortions be legal.

Destigmatization in the Media:

  • Hollywood and the Matter-of-Fact Abortion | Cara Buckley | July 18, 2019

    While depictions of abortion on TV used to be scarce and highly dramatized, Hollywood is beginning to portray abortion care and the decision to have an abortion more realistically and in more diverse settings. This New York Times article provides examples of TV portrayals of abortion that both normalize abortion care and resist media’s culture of exceptionalizing reproductive healthcare.

Understanding how stigma can lead to medical consequences:

How does abortion stigma impact abortion providers

  • Physicians, abortion provision and the legitimacy paradox.

    Contraception (journal) | Lisa Harris | January 1, 2013

    In this piece, Dr. Harris describes the impact of abortion stigma on practitioners. She outlines the challenge of the “legitimacy paradox.” While highly qualified clinicians provide abortion care, they are portrayed as deviant or illegitimate providers due to the abortion stigma. This paradox then further contributes to the secrecy surrounding abortion provision, shortages of providers, and misrepresentation of providers.

To add to your reading list:

  • Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary Abortion

    Katie Watson

    In this book, Katie Watson addresses the ethics and laws that surround abortion in the United States while also discussing the rampant stigma that surrounds this common procedure. She calls for more discussion and communication about this medical procedure that plays a role in so many people’s lives and delves into the concept of abortion as a “moral good.” For a review of Scarlet A: Stories from Stigma: Why Can’t We Openly Discuss Abortion? And ‘Scarlet A’ Wants Less Shouting About Abortion and More Talking

For a review of Scarlet A:

Interested in more of Lisa Harris’s work? 

*Unfortunately due to copyright issues, we cannot post the full text of these papers. We have linked to the abstract and if you are a student or have access otherwise to research databases, you should be able to access the full text through those channels.

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