Destigmatizing Abortion

Apr 12, 2015 | Opinion, Stories

By Grace O.

Let’s talk about destigmatizing abortion. I’ll start by saying that wherever you are at right now with the word abortion, you are Ok and you are welcome here. Discomfort with the word—and the associated politics surrounding it—are not uncommon in this community, especially with our newcomers. But I think it’s time we sat down with an ice cold of pitcher of lemonade and talked it out.

First things first: we are here to support you through your pregnancy loss regardless of your politics. We understand that emotionally, terminating a wanted pregnancy for medical reasons is very different from terminating an unwanted pregnancy. We’re probably all pretty much on the same page with that.


Hope is like amniotic fluid

From an emotional standpoint, making the choice to interrupt a wanted pregnancy can feel more like a miscarriage, although it is very different from that too. Editing so many stories for this site, and listening to thousands more through our support group, I’ve concluded that hope is as crucial an element in pregnancy as amniotic fluid. When a poor prenatal diagnosis removes all hope for our baby, we suffer an emotional form of oligohydramnios—we literally lose the ability to carry that pregnancy to term. We know this pregnancy cannot possibly continue because there is no hope our baby will live, or have any semblance of a normal life, or will put our own life or future at an untenable risk.

There are people, generally anti-choice folks, who believe that in the face of a medical diagnosis we should simply replace our lost hope with false hope. But most of us who end up here understand that false hope is a temporary indulgence that could only lead to greater suffering for our babies in the end, or even cost us our own lives.

Abortion stigma and the imaginary pedestal

Every so often in our support group, the subject of abortion politics comes up. It’s a topic that causes a lot of pain because it seems to lump ending a wanted pregnancy together with the very stigmatized, politicized and much more common situation of ending an unwanted pregnancy. Dealing with these politics, the news debates, the Facebook opinions, is part of our reality after a termination for medical reasons. We are here for you as you face this.

There is a visceral reaction to “the abortion debate” that goes something like: But-but-but I really wanted this baby! I’m not relieved, I am devastated! I am not selfish. I didn’t do this for ‘convenience.’ Why am I getting lumped in with those ‘bad’ abortions when this was more like turning off life support?”

While this reaction is completely understandable, it often leads to an unworkable solution that goes like this: Let’s put pregnancy termination for medical reasons apart and above pregnancy termination for other reasons. This starts with euphemisms (it wasn’t an abortion, it was a heart-wrenching choice, it was a pregnancy interruption, it was an intentional stillbirth …) and ends with the judgment that ending a wanted pregnancy is better, more justified, and on an imaginary pedestal above ending an unwanted pregnancy.

From a purely emotional point of view it makes perfect sense, and many people begin and end this portion of their journey there. My pregnancy interruption was different and special and better than an abortion. 

I believe we can do better than this.

A hard pill to swallow

The truth is, from a legal and medical standpoint, an abortion is an abortion. This can be a hard pill to swallow, especially early on, and nobody here is going to judge you if you need to hide that pill under your napkin for a while. Here, let me pour you another glass of lemonade.

The problem really isn’t that our pregnancy terminations are getting lumped in unfairly with other abortions, even though it can sure seem that way. When we think that, we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. The real problem is the stigmatization of abortion, period. If abortion didn’t have this stigma—if it wasn’t associated with words like selfishness and convenience and birth control, if it wasn’t freighted with the sexist idea that women exist mainly to breed and raise children and anything else we do in life is an off-label use of our gender which we really don’t have any right to do—then our terminations being “lumped in with” abortion would not hurt so much. If abortion was viewed simply as a medical procedure that any woman has the right to obtain at any time regardless of her circumstances and is otherwise nobody’s business, then we’d never feel obligated to justify ours with our reasons, or even compare our reasons with the reasons of others.

How Destigmatizing Abortion Helps You

If abortion weren’t stigmatized, we wouldn’t hesitate to call what we’ve been through an abortion. When we refuse to accept or validate other people’s reasons for ending a pregnancy, we, unfortunately, perpetuate the stigma of all abortions, including our own. In essence, we unintentionally contribute to the problem. Put in its proper perspective, abortion is not a character issue. It’s simply a medical procedure women sometimes need. If we don’t like our characters being judged based on our abortion, it’s pretty important to stop judging the characters of others based on their abortions. And it starts with destigmatizing abortion.

When I first came to this community in early 2000, I had been A.) Pro-choice, but B.) certain I personally would never need an abortion. The euphemisms we used here were a relief. They saved me from having to explain to people that no, I actually planned this pregnancy and wanted this baby very much. Or that no, I didn’t do this for “convenience” but to spare my child a short and painful life of medical trauma. By putting my choice above other abortions, I put myself apart from the debate. I needed to do this at the time when I was very raw in my grief. That special abortion pedestal is what kept me above the shark-infested waters of the abortion debate. But eventually, I would climb down from my perch and enter those waters armed with a sharpened spear clutched firmly in my fist to defend all abortion.


Destigmatizing Abortion: a revelation

I had a personal revelation that went like this: A crisis pregnancy is a crisis pregnancy is a crisis pregnancy. The abortions of “unwanted” pregnancies that get dismissed with words like “selfish” and “convenience” and “just put it up for adoption” are no less crisis pregnancies than our abortions meant to spare suffering or save our own health. My friend who had already raised two children when she ended a pregnancy following a failure of her birth control is as worthy of respect and support for her choice as I am.

This is the thing I didn’t get early on, because I wasn’t ready to get it: My reasons weren’t better, just different.

While an unintended pregnancy itself may be the crisis in “regular” abortions, my pregnancy, at the point my baby was diagnosed with HLHS, AVSD and Trisomy 21, became a crisis pregnancy. And just as a woman who is too poor, or already has all the children she can emotionally handle, or has just been served divorce papers, or never wanted children in the first place, or for whatever reason feels she cannot continue her pregnancy would choose to end that pregnancy, so my circumstances had become dire and so I also chose to end my pregnancy.

And like that hypothetical “other” woman, I relied on safe, legal, available abortion to end my crisis. The truth is, had abortion not been legal I would never have tried for a subsequent pregnancy and had another child.

Destigmatizing abortion is crucial to keeping it legal

I used the same door, the one labeled Legal Abortion, to exit the crisis of my wanted pregnancy that others used to exit the crisis of their unwanted pregnancies. When barriers are put in front of that door, it affects all of us. When the door is locked, it affects all of us. When that door is covered with a graffiti of words like slut and selfish it affects all of us. When that door is blocked by armed guards, or protesters, or bricked over by anti-choice laws, it affects all of us. Nobody is going to make special exceptions for fetal anomalies. If abortion is outlawed, there will be no special exit door propped open for others in situations like ours.

If you doubt this, if you believe abortion will remain legal for special situations like fetal anomaly, then please educate yourself as to what women seeking abortion for medical reasons face in Ireland where abortion is criminalized. There simply are no exceptions. Due to the strength of disability rights activism (which on the whole is a great thing), the possibility of abortion remaining legal only for poor prenatal diagnosis is nil. Likewise, access to abortions for maternal health concerns is at risk thanks to abortion stigma that says your life must be in grave danger before you can have the procedure.

I can’t think of a single other medical procedure that is denied to you until you’re on death’s door with a court order in your hand. If that alone isn’t a reason to work toward destigmatizing abortion, I don’t know what is.

In a nutshell, the same sexist assumptions that lead to limits on reproductive freedom (e.g., “women can’t be trusted to make their own decisions about pregnancy”) are applied when it comes to poor prenatal diagnosis and maternal health. The anti-choice zealots who want to eliminate abortion are not going to suddenly trust your judgment just because you have a devastating prenatal diagnosis or deadly maternal health issue in hand.

Rest assured you are not obligated to agree with any of this. We are foremost a pregnancy loss support site and we accept everyone regardless of where they are at on abortion rights. But please keep in mind that those who are here for support after ending a wanted pregnancy, including those who are supporting you in return, may have ended unwanted pregnancies as well at some point in their history. And if not them, perhaps someone very close to them. When we voice strong anti-abortion sentiments, we hurt others as well as ourselves.

Eye openers

One of the things that opened my eyes about destigmatizing abortion was listening to people (all people, far beyond our support group) talk about abortions and reasons. There seemed to be this shifting hierarchy that put “reasons” like rape, incest and maternal physical health far above things like poverty, life circumstances, birth control failure, depression or personal desperation. Where terminating a pregnancy for medical reasons fell on that continuum depended on who was doing the talking. The criticism and demonization of parents in our situation—even by those who call themselves pro-choice—was a shocker.

Over the years I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard it opined that “incompatible with life” diagnoses like anencephaly and thanatophoric dysplasia are “less reason” to end a pregnancy because the baby will die anyway. I’ve heard all of the happy talk about Down syndrome being a like a stroll through a bed of tulips that ends with an adorable three-year-old rather than a dependent 43-year-old. I’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s self-serving assertion that her pregnancy terminations for financial reasons were morally superior to terminations after prenatal diagnosis—as if there simply were no financial hardships involved with raising a severely disabled child. I’ve heard “adoption” put forth as a solution for spina bifida. I’ve cringed as people called our abortions a zealotry for perfection, eugenics and worse.

I’ve even heard that some of the most terrible prenatal diagnoses should simply be considered a cosmic self-improvement project, as if we should let our children suffer so we can earn a star in our crown.

I don’t buy any of that, of course. My point is that there really is no hierarchy of medical reasons. Once I accepted that there was no hierarchy of medical reasons, I could then take that next step and accept that there is no hierarchy of reasons period. There is really no reason not to destigmatize abortion.

We make it harder for ourselves, and for those who will come after us, when we perpetuate the ugly stereotypes surrounding abortion. What may feel like a safe haven at first—rejecting the word abortion, using euphemisms, applying hierarchies of reasons—ultimately won’t protect us from criticism and social stigma. It’s out there, it’s happening right now and we are not immune to it. But what will protect us is destigmatizing abortion, and by that I mean all abortion, including abortions for reasons that don’t pertain to us. And we can only work towards that by learning to get comfortable with the word abortion, standing up for the rights of our sisters everywhere and for every reason, refusing to play the game of judging other people’s abortions, and allowing our stories to be used to keep abortion legal.

Give yourself as much time as you need to get there, but please do try.

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