The Undeniable Stigma of Abortion
Abortion stigma for me began the moment I realized I was pregnant. In even considering an abortion, many women cross the line of their own personal conscience. One step can lead to another until you are quickly “pregnant no more.”
It is nearly trite to say that my abortion experience marked my life deeply. Any form of pregnancy loss is memorable. If not grieved adequately, this loss can impact the rest of an individual’s life in many ways. According to Planned Parenthood, 33% of American women have chosen abortion at least once and only a handful will ever openly admit to making this choice.
After abortion women can experience a brief sense of “relief” that the crisis is over. While some believed, “Abortion was wrong” prior to their unplanned pregnancy, few ever thought they could personally need an escape from an unplanned pregnancy. When the hypothetical situation becomes real, abortion is a difficult option to discredit. That’s when the stigma starts…
A February, 2011 article from “Women’s Health Issue,”[i] featured a discussion entitled, Abortion Stigma: A Reconceptualization of Constituents, Causes, and Consequences.
The Abstract seems plausible enough – Understanding abortion stigma will inform strategies to reduce it, which has direct implications for improving access to care and better health for those whom stigma affects.”
The authors define 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.” They go on, “Concealing abortion is part of a vicious cycle that reinforces the perpetuation of stigma.”
These writers are missing a huge point. If I had wanted everyone to know about my unplanned pregnancy, I wouldn’t have entered an abortion clinic! Abortion allowed me to exchange one stigma (unplanned pregnancy) for another (abortion). While I thought abortion was an easier option, I was wrong. One thing I can do is CONTROL whom I share this truth with. If I choose to conceal my abortion, I am NOT responsible for perpetuating the abortion stigma.
These researchers outline, “This secret keeping, in turn, led to more thought suppression regarding the abortion, which hampered post-abortion psychological adjustment.” At least they outline that we need psychological “adjustments” after this choice! Few groups offer these “adjustment” service – or abortion recovery classes – outside of our nation’s pregnancy centers, church based or stand-alone abortion recovery programs.
In choosing abortion, I felt I had betrayed my internal identity as a woman. I was fully capable of having a baby physically, but not psychologically, or so I thought. Afterwards, my whole soul was marked. That was proven when various dysfunctional behaviors appeared in my heart that were not present before my pregnancy was terminated.
The following are points these theorists believe could be the reason for abortion stigma, along with my personal opinion:
Abortion stigma is usually considered a “concealable” stigma – “it is unknown to others unless disclosed.” – Most of us did, at one time, believe we could conceal this secret forever.
Women are not “fully in control of whether their status (as post-abortive) is revealed by – and to – others.” Women fear discovery at every level, especially by their own family members. Abortion can even be used as blackmail where the abuser maintains an abusive control by threatening to betray the woman’s secret by sharing this truth with family and friends.
Two out of three women having abortions anticipate abortion stigma if others learn about it. Many women even practice appearing “innocent” when they are alone so that if and/or when the abortion topic is brought up, they do not betray their abortion truth with a physical reaction.
Abortion stigma is also impacted by perceptions. These authors outline the difference, at a psychological level, between what they call “good” and “bad” abortion experiences.
This research indicates a “good” abortion is more socially acceptable, characterized by one or more of the following:
- A fetus with major malformations
- A pregnancy that occurred despite a reliable method of contraception
- A first-time abortion
- An abortion in the case of rape or incest
- A very young woman
- A contrite woman who is in a monogamous relationship
On the other extreme are “bad” abortions. These occur, “at later gestational ages,” and include women who had multiple previous abortions without using contraception.
These authors conclude that the post-abortive women themselves, “May be both the stigmatizer and stigmatized, believing they had “good abortions” and distancing themselves from others who had “bad abortions. These moral distinctions may be drawn by any woman having an abortion, whether anti-abortion or prochoice.” They got this part right. I judged the married mother of two children that sat next to me while we were waiting for our abortions. I thought abortions were only for pregnant teenagers, not married women with the ability to care for children!
What is preposterous is the conclusion of these authors – that society can do something to suddenly transform abortion into something that VALIDATES women versus STIGMATIZES them. In order to do that, the researchers would have to find a way to alter a woman’s genetic code that turns off her inborn drive to “protect her young at any cost.”
Sydna Masse is President and Founder of Ramah International, Inc. and author of the book, Her Choice to Heal: Finding Spiritual and Emotional Peace After Abortion.
[i] Norris A, Bessett D, Steinberg JR, Kavanaugh ML, DeZordo, S, Becker D. Abortion Stigma: A Reconceptualization of Constituents, Cause and Consequences, Womens Health Issues. May-June, 2011; (3 suppl):S49-54, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21530840/