People say a lot of things about abortion, and much of it is frames abortion as something to be ashamed of.
Take former presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s remarks from February, for example, where he described abortion as a “tragedy” and a “difficult” decision—even as he expressed general support for reproductive rights. Yang was rightfully criticized for these remarks, but the reality is: Comments like these are emblematic of how our culture has been informed by the anti-abortion movement’s stigmatizing rhetoric and ignores the real experiences of people who actually seek abortions.
As an activist with years of experience fighting to protect reproductive rights and health, I know the truth: Abortion can actually be an act of love, compassion, healing and selflessness. Abortion is about physicians and nurses offering compassionate healthcare to patients. It’s about people having the freedom to make decisions about their own bodies, families, and lives. Abortion is a fact of life, and most of us have either had one or know someone who has.
Our goal should be to empower people to make decisions that are right for them without fear of shame, stigma, judgment or backlash. Offering this positive, compassionate vision of abortion is more important than ever—as anti-abortion extremists and their allies in government use violent, dangerous rhetoric to pass dangerous laws restricting abortion access. In fact, over the past decade, state legislatures across the country have passed over 450 restrictions on abortion. Each time a legislature considers one of these restrictions is yet another opportunity for the anti-abortion movement to inject its rhetoric into our mainstream discourse on abortion.
And it is this vicious feedback loop that has led us to today, where even ‘well-meaning’ politicians, family members and friends can cause tremendous harm by unconsciously adopting this kind of stigmatizing language. People seeking abortion already face heightened legal and financial barriers to getting the care they need. The social stigma exacerbates these barriers and denies people their autonomy and dignity.
There’s also evidence that efforts to spread shame around abortion cause damage even beyond restricting people’s access to care. Despite what anti-abortion propaganda wants the public to believe, most people feel overwhelming relief after having an abortion. However recent studies show that people who feel ashamed about their decision to have an abortion are more likely to experience psychological distress years after seeking abortion care.
The truth is clear: abortion is lifesaving, compassionate care—but abortion stigma is profoundly dangerous and harmful.
It’s long overdue to put loving and compassionate language at the forefront of any discussion about reproductive health care. That’s why the National Women’s Law Center is leading a creative new campaign called “Abortion Actually.” We’re taking back the narrative on abortion and centering the emotions, humanity, and values of what it really means to have an abortion using powerful custom artwork.
And we’re not the only ones pushing for a more positive way to talk about abortion: The community advocates on the frontlines of abortion fights have been leading narrative change for years, from hosting storytelling events to support and normalize sharing personal experiences with abortion, to situating abortion care as a central part of holistic health care. In the face of attacks on abortion, community leaders have long been trusted messengers to engage peers in honest conversations about abortion.
Each one of us has an opportunity and the obligation to honor and celebrate this important fight by talking about abortion with language that reflects the reality of what abortion actually is and what it means to the people who need it.
If we are truly committed to full and equal access to reproductive health care for all, we must think carefully about the words we use, and center the real lived experiences of people in our conversations about abortion going forward.