Today has been designated “Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion,” when the world shines a light on this fundamental reproductive right. But in many places, abortion is still very much in the shadows. Although there are an estimated 40-50 million abortions annually across the globe, abortion remains highly stigmatized. Unlike other reproductive health services, abortion is shrouded in secrecy and silence. And when people do talk about abortion, these conversations are highly charged and fail to accurately capture the lived experiences of those who have had abortions.
Even worse, efforts that may seem benign or are actually intended to support choice are too often cloaked in language that fails to affirm the human right to terminate a pregnancy. For example, while some celebrated Pope Francis’s declaration that priests can absolve women who have had abortions as a sign of progress, the notion that women “need” forgiveness or even suffer from their decision is deeply problematic and fosters stigma. Even in pro-choice circles, we hear comments like “abortion is the hardest decision a woman will ever make” or that abortion is a last resort, to be used in “extreme” and “rare” circumstances. It’s critical to shatter myths and change the rhetoric that perpetuates the idea that abortion is a “necessary evil.” We have to begin to acknowledge the very prevalent and for many, the very mundane, experience of abortion.
Why does abortion stigma matter? Because it is a barrier to abortion both in countries where abortion is legally accessible and countries where it is legally restricted. Both those accessing abortion services as well as abortion providers may experience stigma. A woman, for example, may want to terminate a pregnancy but be afraid to ask her doctor due to negative opinions she has heard. She may be afraid the doctor will judge her or lecture her. Although abortion is legal in her country, she may then resort to clandestine channels due to fear of discussing something that is actually her legal right. In other cases, doctors who may want to receive training on abortion or provide the service may be shamed and ostracized by their colleagues or community. Stigma also perpetuates silence. Women who have had abortions often stay silent; far too often those who actively oppose abortion are the only voices many people hear.
Around the world, our partners are working to change this. In Brazil, abortion is illegal except in the case of rape, anencephaly (a severe fetal anomaly), or danger to the life of the woman. Yet, it is estimated that more than one million abortions occur each year—the majority of which are considered unsafe. Stigma pushes abortion even more underground.
A group of young feminist bloggers is working to tackle this stigma by getting out the personal stories of women who have had clandestine abortions in Brazil. In a country where the National Congress often uses anti-choice rhetoric, the people who actually have faced such decisions are rarely given the opportunity to share their stories. Through testimonials from a range of women—single, married, with children, without children, and from various socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds—these bloggers are showing that there is no specific type of person who gets an abortion.
Meanwhile, in India, CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action) has worked for the past several months with one of the largest online youth platforms in the country, Youth Ki Avaaz, to combat abortion stigma. The project includes talking with people on the street about their thoughts on abortion, hosting twitter chats, getting first-hand testimonials from those who have had abortions, and disseminating fact sheets, blogs, and information through social networks to dispel some of the leading myths.
Every component of the online campaign “has been carefully planned, keeping in mind that our aim is to create a new understanding, narrative and a positive perception about abortion from a gender and rights lens,” says Surabhi Srivastava, who leads the project for CREA. For Surabhi, the most eye-opening revelation was a video they did, which revealed much about how young people in India view abortion. “Their understanding of abortion is very negative and the language used is very similar to the one used by ‘pro-life’ groups in the U.S. —‘killing a baby,’ ‘denying a life,’ etc.”
Although abortion up to 20 weeks of pregnancy, provided certain conditions are met, has been legal in India since 1971, only 1 in 10 women is aware that it is legal. Surabhi says that lack of knowledge about the law is not the only barrier to services, “Abortion stigma is deeply rooted since there are absolutely no conversations on this topic in the mainstream media and among the general public.” And silence is not the only factor contributing to abortion stigma in India, “patriarchal attitudes towards women’s sexuality, bodily autonomy, and choice perpetuate the stigma and shame that persists about abortion.”
Another IWHC partner, the Asia Safe Abortion Project, has launched a series of shareable photos and are encouraging activists to take pictures of themselves and insert them into the graphics.
The bloggers in Brazil and CREA are using social media in innovative ways. It is highly effective in reaching a large audience, but it does have its limits—something that our partners understand. Surabhi says, “Although social media has been a great way to start a conversation on this issue, I think a lot more needs to be done in terms of offline activities in directly combating abortion stigma at the community level.”