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Abortion Stigma Is Hurting Women, But Here’s How We Can Start Getting Rid Of It

By Tara Culp-Ressler on October 22, 2013 at 9:59 am

"Abortion Stigma Is Hurting Women, But Here’s How We Can Start Getting Rid Of It"

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Tuesday marks the beginning of the “1 in 3 Week of Action,” a grassroots effort to push back on the pervasive abortion stigma that continues to impact women’s experiences with their reproductive health. Despite the fact that abortion is a very common aspect of women’s health care, many people feel like they’re not allowed to talk openly about it — largely because they’ve internalized society’s shame-based message that having an abortion means they’ve done something wrong. The events held during the “1 in 3 Week” hope to change that.

The campaign, organized by the national sexual health advocacy organization Advocates for Youth, hopes to bring more awareness to the fact that abortion is a more mainstream issue than most Americans realize. It draws its name from the fact that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion at some point in her lifetime — and it wants to encourage those women to tell their stories.

“We need to have a conversation about abortion that is personal,” Deb Hauser, the executive director of Advocates for Youth, explained in a statement. “We are facing unprecedented cultural and legislative attacks on our rights. We must speak up about the need for these services. By sharing our stories — of students, moms, young professionals — we can change the conversation around abortion care.”

Indeed, many women’s health advocates believe that abortion stigma is directly related to the mounting attacks on women’s right to choose. An unprecedented number of abortion restrictions have been enacted over the past several years, and it often seems like the nation is regressing on this issue even after four decades under Roe v. Wade. Abortion stigma impacts the way that society talks about the procedure, and ultimately the way that politicians legislate it. A greater number of women sharing their personal experiences with abortion could help slowly reverse this dynamic, in a similar way that conservative lawmakers’ personal connections with LGBT individuals have helped encourage a shift toward more pro-equality policies.

In order to get those conversations going, the “1 in 3 Week” will mobilize more than 100 communities and campus across the country to help highlight individuals’ abortion experiences. College activists are planning events to provide a space for their peers to openly share their stories.

Carly Manes, who attends the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is one of those activists. Manes is helping to organize one of the country’s first “abortion speak-outs,” a public forum where students will be encouraged to talk about their abortion in a safe space. It’s a similar model as “Take Back The Night,” which gives college students a forum to share their stories about sexual assault in a space where they can be assured they won’t be judged or blamed. Just like Take Back The Night helps the people who have survived sexual violence reclaim their agency and their voice, Manes hopes that this week’s abortion speak-out will do the same for the people who have chosen to end a pregnancy.

“It’s giving a voice back to the women and the trans men and the other individuals who have abortions,” Manes explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “This way, politicians and the current national rhetoric can’t shut us out. We’re speaking about our stories and our lived experiences — which can’t be legislated, can’t be argued, and can’t be debated with the current anti-choice rhetoric that goes on in our country.”

The anti-choice community typically pushes the talking point that having an abortion is always detrimental to women’s mental health. But, as Maines points out, that claim isn’t necessarily supported by women’s actual experiences. Research surveying the individuals who have ended a pregnancy has found that abortion itself doesn’t actually make women depressed or regretful. Most of them say that it was the right choice for them, and they felt grateful to have control over their reproductive freedom.

And when women do report feeling negative emotions after an abortion, those feelings are often exacerbated by the societal stigma that surrounds the procedure. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Abortion opponents tell women that they should feel ashamed and immoral after “killing their baby” — and then when women internalize those negative emotions, the anti-choice community holds that up as evidence that abortion is bad for women.

In addition to damaging women’s self-esteem, abortion stigma also prevents the individuals who have had abortions from making connections with each other. Many of the women who decide to end a pregnancy may feel wholly alone in that experience, when it’s actually one that they share with lots of other people. “It’s keeping women silent in their experiences, which really isolates us from one another. It makes it so that if someone did need support after an abortion, they have a much harder time accessing it because we’re not talking about it,” Manes pointed out.

In addition to this week’s grassroots push, Advocates for Youth is running an ongoing “1 in 3” campaign to combat abortion stigma. Many women’s stories have been collected in a book that was published to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. “As we share our stories, we begin to build a culture of compassion, empathy, and support for access to basic health care,” the group notes.

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