How to Reduce Abortion Stigma? Take A Clue from the Global HIV/AIDS Movement

One aspect of the global HIV/AIDS movement that’s always impressed me is the success advocates have had in reducing stigma around infection. In the 30 years that this disease has taken root, stigma has shrunken dramatically. Famous people from all professions and walks of life have come forward to divulge their status (some voluntarily, others involuntarily). Heads of state take HIV tests in public to show people it’s nothing to be ashamed of. UN Goodwill Ambassador Annie Lennox can wear a black “HIV Positive” tee-shirt to the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS. Stigma remains a component of dealing with HIV/AIDS, but perhaps not the biggest challenge.

In contrast, stigma remains arguably the biggest obstacle to advancing reproductive health and rights worldwide. Earlier this year I was in Ghana, where reproductive health laws are some of the most progressive on the continent [PDF], yet social and religious stigma is so stifling that unsafe abortion remains a leading cause of death for women there [PDF]. Contraceptive use, too, is highly stigmatized. If you use it and you’re unmarried, you’re promiscuous. If you’re married, you’re being unfaithful.

Stigma looks different everywhere, but the overall outcome is the same: Women are judged, pressured and oppressed. Access to services is chronically limited.  This is true in Ghana, as it is in the U.S. and around the world.

And yet, the sexual and reproductive health movement has never had a public, high-level anti-stigma brigade like the HIV/AIDS movement has had. In fact, speaking openly about abortion even in the U.S. is taboo.

Earlier this year, Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson received a ton of publicity for voicing their support of Planned Parenthood, but their words were carefully chosen. Neither mentioned the importance of abortion access, and while it does only comprise 3 percent of PP’s services, it’s still a really important part! Even birth control was only fleetingly mentioned. These issues are still off limits in a public context.

Where is the Magic Johnson, the Arthur Ashe, the Elton John, the Annie Lennox of safe-abortion access or contraceptive use?  We need to find them and embolden them. Reducing stigma around HIV has meant starting and sustaining difficult conversations. We need to bring abortion and contraception into those conversations, and in turn we need to work harder at understanding why HIV/AIDS anti-stigma efforts have succeeded.

I imagine a world without AIDS, but I also imagine a world where women’s access to critical services like safe abortion and contraception is not obscured by stigma. I imagine a world where Annie Lennox wears an “abortion rights positive” shirt to the next UN high-level meeting.

Photo from Flickr user Women’s eNews under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. (1) We don’t need to find *them* and embolden *them* – we need to BE THEM.

    (2) The equivalent wouldn’t be Annie Lennox in an “Abortion Rights Positive” t-shirt, but Annie Lennox in an “I had an abortion” t-shirt.

    • Al, I used “abortion rights positive” as an example because “HIV positive” tee-shirts are not necessarily literal, they demonstrate support and are purposefully ambiguous as to whether the wearer actually has HIV or not. So I meant that we should be wearing “abortion positive” tee-shirts whether we’ve had abortions or not… But thanks for the suggestion — it would be great and I think you should make one and wear it!

  2. Just want to point out theres at least one abortion positive celebrity out there, Chelsea Handler did an interview last month in which she revealed she had an abortion as a teen and says it was the best decision for herself, you can read it here:

  3. This is correct, but a far bigger problem with abortion rights strategy is the failure to go LOCAL! and elect active abortion rights MAYORS! who will use local property taxes to provide free abortions and paid contraception. Remember mayors are not answerable to rural voters, AND our opponents are moving out into the country, while our formerly rural allies are moving into towns. Thus the electoral prospects for abortion rights MAYORS get better every year, where they don’t for prochoice presidents or not much for governors.

    Please read these petitions advocating municipal environmental

    contraception funding, which is increasingly politically realistic due

    to The Big Sort in more and more towns, and helps women’s right’s, quality of life, and school taxes as well as being at

    least 5 times more cost-effective than any other environmental effort.….

    The prochoice and contraception movements are placing too high a priority on defensive actions in the red states when we should be going on the offensive, the side of “change”, in the blue states, and cities. The worst places

    will get even worse no matter what we do, but the unrealized political potential, the low hanging fruit, is in making the best places even better. This opportunity is being caused by The Big Sort. Mayors are not answerable to rural voters, unlike governors and presidents.
    We americans love cars more than babies, Very soon we will have to choose, and we will choose cars.

  4. I am 71 years old. I had an abortion many years ago and I am still confident that the right decision was made. I was also very grateful that abortions had fairly recently been made legal and that I would be safely taken care of by my regular OB/GYN. If such a tee shirt (I had an abortion/I support abortion rights) is designed and made available, I promise to wear it! Too many women and girls died or were permanently damaged by back alley and self attempted abortions before the legalization and I never thought the time would come when those deaths and injuries would be forgotten and there would actually be people with such short memories that they would be willing, and even eager, to return to those earlier barbaric times.

    • Terry Preston says:

      Barbi, I’m 64 and never needed abortion services, but I sure remember when some women got “D & Cs” and some women had no other options than bearing the child or hitting the back alleys. I’ve come to realize that each generation has to be taught anew to fight for their rights. For example, I never thought I’d see a day when people denied the Holocaust, but some do. I remember being in a department store in my 20s and asking a woman for the time. When she turned her wrist I saw the tattooed numbers on the inside–very neatly incribed with perfect penmanship, I might add, which somehow was their most chilling aspect. Regarding abortion, I once saw a photo taken of a dead woman in an abortion clinic after the abortionist had fled, leaving her to bleed out and die alone. It amazes me how allegedly moral people can have no compassion for those of us want to make our own health decisions and be something other than breeding stock. Peace to you, Terry

  5. In the 70s, 80s and even into the early 90s, celebrities would talk about their abortions (usually illegal ones before Roe) in magazines. Everyone knew someone who had died or had serious trouble with illegal abortions. It was much less stigmatized then (though certainly as destigmatized as AIDS is today). Somewhere along the line, women stopped speaking out for themselves and allowed facts to be replaced with shrill fearmongering.

  6. This is a very good article, thank you!

  7. Belle of Acadie says:

    All I can say is “amen”.

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!