The Real Impact of Abortion Stigma

I was 18 when I had my picture taken by an anti-choice activist for the first time. It was unnerving, to say the least. I had recently started working as a patient advocate at Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider in Austin, Texas. Soon navigating the throng of aggressive anti-choice activists became a regular part of my work day, but I never got used to it. In addition to shouting at every person that approached the clinic—providing what they call “sidewalk counseling”—some protesters also shamed visitors by taking their picture. Not only did they photograph patients, their friends and family, and the staff, they even took photos of the license plates of their cars. It was a chilling intimidation tactic because these pictures were often later posted on anti-choice websites, or, in the case of staff, used to create “wanted” posters.

In the midst of these constant attempts at shame and intimidation, I had the honor of standing with people as they made the decision about whether or not to continue with their pregnancies. In my late teens and early 20s I worked at the front desk of the clinic, and later on I was a counselor and funding coordinator. Eventually I became an advocate, working with local communities to combat stigma and pushing for progressive abortion policy.

Over the years, I met people who were deeply religious and those who were atheist. I talked with people who were lesbian and bisexual and straight, people who were cisgender and transgender. I met people who were parents already and others who knew they never wanted to be parents. I talked to 13-year-olds and 45-year-olds. In other words, I talked with people from all walks of life because there is no single kind of woman who has an abortion.

But the stigma of abortion means that we rarely get to hear the stories of real women who have had them. Some pioneering organizations and campaigns in the United States and elsewhere have been working to change this. We need to amplify these messages, because stigma breeds silence. And in the vacuum created by that silence, what stories get told, what policies get made?

The untruths abound: that women can’t make moral decisions, that only careless people have abortions, that abortion is bad for women. These myths stand unchallenged, and as a consequence, our leaders develop policies based on them. The misinformation caused by and perpetuated by stigma leads directly to restrictive abortion policies. If you look at abortion policies in many countries—such as mandatory waiting periods or third-party consent laws—you see they are written in a way that perpetuates the stigma and discrimination. They portray abortion as a dangerous procedure that people choose without sufficient consideration or information, or that only a certain type of woman wants or gets an abortion. You would think that women are not capable of rational, ethical decision-making and have to be protected from making the “wrong” decision.

In the clinic, we often said that pregnancy shines a bright light on a person’s life. Questions about religion, family, career, relationships, and health jump to the foreground with new urgency as people choose which sacrifices they can or want to make. All pregnancies involve sacrifice no matter if they result in abortion, adoption, or parenting. And no one knows better than the pregnant person which decision is right for them; no one understands better the full implications and impact of their choice. We need policies that respect this truth and that protect, respect, and fulfill our sexual and reproductive rights.

Ending the stigma of abortion involves telling the stories of people who choose abortion and those who don’t. It involves speaking the truth about abortion and dispelling both the myths and the deliberate misinformation. And for those of us who can, it’s about standing up bravely and proudly to say, “I support abortion rights.” We have to fight stigma and say that good people have abortions every day. We need to ensure that countries everywhere respect, protect, and fulfill every woman’s right to decide the course of her own life.

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