To undo the stigma around abortion, it is thus essential that we undo the stigma around female sexuality. Women’s bodies and sexuality have always been a subject of public debate, but we ought to change the current discourse. And that change won’t come about by refusing to talk about abortion and female sexuality in a nuanced way. The first step, therefore, is to create safe spaces and opportunities for women to be able to share their personal narratives of abortion. It is important to keep in mind, however, that sharing personal narratives of abortion is not a political strategy: it is first and foremost about respecting the storyteller and creating an intimate space for an alternative discourse. This alternative discourse,. Yet this alternative discourse can also lead to significant political effects.
If we start to talk openly about the diversity of abortion views and experiences, we also create opportunity for discussing a diversity of female sexualities and their various expressions, along with contemplating an array of possible definitions and manifestations of “family” outside of the established norm. Speaking out about abortion also helps us in confronting the systemic inequalities and regulations that erect barriers not just in women’s lives but also in the lives of all those constrained by patriarchy. Part of this re-imagining of family means acknowledging that motherhood is not for everyone, and should not be mandated in any case.
In order to enable this sharing of personal experiences and stories of abortion, we as feminists also ought to ensure that abortion is not the sole focus, and instead, our advocacy must be intersectional and inclusive. For too long, “pro-choice” has appeared synonymous with the idea that abortion on demand is the end-game, when in fact we need to talk about abortion in a way that demonstrates the degree to which access to stigma-free, safe abortion matters to broader reproductive justice and social justice goals – including caring for children by deciding if or when it’s best to bring them into the world, and having access to resources to support the children one already has. In fact, adhering to popular arguments that abortion is a matter of “privacy” and “choice” can contribute further to silencing and stigma because conventional definitions of these concepts assume multiple layers of privilege. And as Rosalind Petchesky, the founder of The International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group (IRRAG) puts it, the idea that a woman actually owns her body, “stands not as a description of reality but as a rhetorical achievement” at best.
It is of urgent need, therefore, to locate and talk about abortion within the broader framework of sexuality and rights. It ought to be addressed with all its complexity and nuances within the paradigm of comprehensive sexuality education, and not merely confined to the legal and public health dimensions. Katha Pollitt, feminist and author of the recent ground-breaking book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, puts it beautifully, when she says:
“We need to talk about abortion it its full human setting: sex and sexuality, love, violence, privilege, class, race, school and work, men, the scarcity of excellent, respectful reproductive health care, and of realistic, accurate information about sex and reproduction. We need to talk about why there are so many unplanned and unwanted pregnancies – which means we need to talk about birth control, but also about so much more than that: about poverty and violence and family troubles, about sexual shyness and shame and ignorance and the lack of power so many women experience in bed and in their relationships with men…”
And so, to revolutionize the way we think and talk about abortion, it’s time to stop hiding behind the rhetoric of development and health, and instead address the elephant in the room –female sexuality. And the time to do that is now.