How Abortion Stigma Impacts Our Politics

On Wednesday morning, ThinkProgress reported that a conservative group has been attempting to dissuade South Carolina voters from supporting Elizabeth Colbert Busch (D) in the state’s upcoming special election by placing misleading phone calls. Sources told ThinkProgress that callers from an organization called “SSI Group” asked voters, among other things, “What would you think of Elizabeth Colbert Busch if I told you she had had an abortion?”

The polling company disputes this report, saying that the question about abortion violates their policy. ThinkProgress is attempting to verify with another source. Regardless of whether that particular question was officially approved by SSI, however, it brings up an issue that continues to pervade our political process: the ongoing impact of abortion stigma.

Even if SSI didn’t ask that question, women’s personal experiences with abortion have certainly been used as a method of dissuading popular support from female candidates before. Just last month, a Nevada state representative received significant backlash — including death threats — after referencing an abortion she had as a teen to advocate for comprehensive sex ed reform. Two years ago, a similar situation unfolded after Rep. Jackie Spier (D-CA) opened up about her own abortion. Many headlines at the time implied that Spier must have felt guilt and shame about sharing that aspect of her personal life, proclaiming, “Congresswoman Admits to Having an Abortion.”

Those type of reactions are largely due to the lingering stigma surrounding the aspect of women’s reproductive care. Even though about one in three U.S. women will have had an abortion by the time she is 45 years old, abortion still isn’t considered to be an appropriate topic for polite company. Society continues to reinforce the shame-based messages that abortion services are always morally depraved, and that every woman who has chosen to have one always regrets it. This has ensured that abortion is an issue that still lives in the shadows, despite the raging culture wars surrounding legislation to police women’s reproductive health. The women who have actually had their own personal experiences with abortion don’t feel safe enough to talk about it.


Women’s health advocates attempt to combat abortion stigma by encouraging a “coming out” model for the women who have chosen to terminate a pregnancy, similar to the LGBT community. Through sharing important parts of their identities with the people who are close to them, LGBT individuals have helped shift the national conversation about equal rights. Similarly, increasing Americans’ personal connections to women who have had abortions could help the reproductive rights community leverage more allies.

Some reproductive rights proponents argue that this shift needs to begin with our language. Often, the words that we use to talk about women’s health issues actually obscure the reality of abortion altogether. Perhaps afraid of evoking too much controversy, activists often eschew the term “abortion” in favor of labels like “pro-choice,” “anti-choice,” and “the freedom to choose.” In fact, when President Obama addressed Planned Parenthood at the end of the last week — the first sitting president to do so — and spoke about the importance of protecting women’s reproductive rights, he didn’t use the word “abortion” even once.

The fact that our collective society understands that abortion is supposed to be a bad thing — that somehow catching a female lawmaker “admitting” to having one, as if she committed a crime, ought to sway public opinion away from her — impacts the way that politicians talk about it, and ultimately the way that they legislate it. Abortion policy likely won’t drastically shift until that stigma is lessened, and until women can speak about their own experiences without shame.