New research shows that women who openly discuss their abortions can change the minds of people who previously believed it should be illegal.
Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures women undertake. Yet, it is one that few women are publicly willing to admit to. The history of abortion spans time and geography (the ancient Egyptians were amongst the first to devise surgical techniques). Yet, stigma and shame continue to be attached to this common human experience.
Social stigma is created through the oversimplification of complex situations, and abortion is no different. Despite the fact that women have them for many and varied reasons, there persists a presumption that abortion is morally objectionable. Even those who are pro-choice have unwittingly added to the stigma by repeating the popular refrain, "Safe, Legal, and Rare," which only serves to reinforce the idea that abortion is something that can be limited to just a few errant women.
All of which creates a culture of silence that only further entrenches the abortion stigma. As hard as it is for women to discuss their abortions, talking about it is exactly what must be done in order to counteract this stigma. Researchers from UCLA recently revealed that women who openly discuss their abortions can change the minds of people who previously believed that it should be illegal (emphasis mine):
"(B)oth female and male canvassers spoke face-to-face with hundreds of California residents, urging support for abortion. Opinions tracked using a multi-wave on-line panel survey show that this randomly assigned persuasive communication produced large and persistent changes in policy views about abortion, especially when messages were delivered by female canvassers who disclosed that they have had an abortion. After canvassing concluded, these persuasive effects were subsequently transmitted to housemates, but only in the wake of contact with a woman who had an abortion. This finding was replicated in follow-up experiments."
In other words, while anyone can potentially change the mind of someone who is anti-abortion, women who have had abortions and are willing to share their stories not only directly influence people to change their negative attitudes, but they also have a flow-on effect, leading these newly changed people to discuss abortion favourably with others.
This is a huge development. As I have previously written, the law is only half the battle when it comes to effecting cultural change. The bigger challenge actually lies in changing people's minds. Unfortunately, this fact is not lost on those who are hostile to the bodily autonomy of women. Consider this random collection of thoughts from anti-abortion activists:
"We CAN make abortion unthinkable in our local communities, our states, our countries, our world!" (Brett Atterbery, Pro-Life Response)
"We want to live in a society…not just where abortion is illegal, but where abortion is unthinkable. What if you lived in a society where abortion was like cannibalism? Where it's such a travesty that not only does nobody do it, you're not even debating the legality of it!" (Monica Snyder, Secular Pro-Life)
"We want to make abortion unthinkable. We want to educate people and change their minds so they can try to help us to stop it." (Rosie Mimms, Arkansas Right To Life)
"We can't make abortion illegal. We need to make it unthinkable." (Mark Zaccaria, Rhode Island Republican politician)
Sensing a theme yet? When anti-abortion campaigners fantasise about making abortion "unthinkable", they expressly aim to attach so much shame to it that any woman even considering one would not dare speak her desires out loud for fear of being cast a social pariah (on par with cannibals no less!), regardless of whether or not it is legal.
This reframing of abortion as a deviant act that betrays women's essential natures has been so successful that one New York judge ruled that a woman's abortion could be used as evidence against her in a custody battle on the basis that it raises questions about the woman's credibility.
This framing belies the facts. Women who have abortions come from all walks of life. Many are already mothers, while others fully intend to become mothers in the future. The only way we can possibly know what drives every individual woman to have an abortion is to talk to her. And this is something those of us who are keenly invested in dismantling the toxic stigma around abortion should be encouraging.
Sharing abortion stories in order to normalise abortion is vital because, ultimately, it is the prevalence of a social stigma, rather than legal status that determines whether women can safely access vital services.
For example, as this research paper published in Culture, Health & Sexuality explains, Zambia has some of Africa's most liberal abortion laws, yet women have limited access to safe services due to "the secrecy, shame, fear of ridicule and taboos associated with abortion." The antipathy towards abortion leads to a lack of trained providers, and women who abort "are considered infectious, with the ability to harm others."
Meanwhile, in Thailand, where abortion is illegal in most circumstances it is nonetheless "understood by villagers to be potentially a reasonable act, given other social values related to motherhood and poverty."
In the US, Roe v Wade means that abortion is technically legal, but invasive state-level laws including ones based on foetal personhood, coupled with an intensive and unrelenting stigmatisation campaign, leaves it out of the reach of many women.
As for Australia, it appears we are fast approaching a crossroads. Although still in the criminal code in some states, until recently there has been little cultural stigma surrounding abortion and it was certainly not something politicians campaigned upon. However, anti-abortion activists are being emboldened by victories in the US, and are keenly adopting their tactics. Last year, for instance, former independent Victorian MP Geoff Shaw embarked on an abortion "study tour" of four states. Meanwhile, women in NSW dodged a bullet when Zoe's Law, a foetal personhood bill first devised by Fred Nile, lapsed in the upper house due to lack of support.
Those of us who are determined to uphold the bodily autonomy of women must act, to see abortion decriminalised yes, but perhaps even more importantly, to quash abortion stigma by encouraging and supporting those women who are willing to discuss their stories.
The more people see the true complexity and humanity that drives women to make the decisions they do, the more we will counteract the lies and oversimplification of a movement that pretends it is saving lives, even as it puts the lives of women in danger.
Anti-abortion activists operate on the presumption that stigmatising abortion means that women won't even consider it. This is as dangerous as it is misguided. Thousands of years of human history has already taught us that nothing can stop a woman who doesn't want to be pregnant from at least contemplating, if not actually seeking a way to end her pregnancy. The only question is, will it be safe for her to do so?