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The Most Effective Dismantling of Reproductive Rights Comes From Stigma


As the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade passed by this week, it was disheartening to review the state of reproductive rights and realize that since this court decision was rendered, these rights have never been in worse shape. It’s not that the majority of Americans oppose abortion rights, because actually according to the ongoing Gallup Poll on the issue, most (52%) still believe that women have a right to get an abortion “under at least some circumstances.” The percentage of people who believe it should be legal in all cases (25%) is still higher than the percentage of people who believe it should be illegal in all cases (20%). However, the number of people identifying themselves as pro-choice (41%) has hit record lows as of polling results released in May 2012. Conversely, the same poll found that 50% of Americans now label themselves as pro-life and 51% say that abortion is morally wrong. Our current Supreme Court is stacked in favor of chipping away at abortion rights, especially if the right cases come before it, and it is difficult to predict how future courts will behave (we are just fortunate to have elected a president that will stave off any attempts to appoint even more justices who oppose women’s rights at this time).  The unprecedented passage of anti-abortion lawsat the state level since 2010 is a major part of the “Republican War on Women.” And of course, radical conservatives have even begun attacking many forms of birth control despite the fact that these would reduce the need for abortions. How did the state of reproductive rights deteriorate to this point? Have these rights been taken too much for granted? Has the anti-abortion movement forced such stigma and shame to surround the procedure that potential advocates are driven away?

The Pew Research Center released the results of its poll last week on the Roe vs. Wade decision. First, the good news: the majority of Americans still believe in the finding of the court and a woman’s right to choose in at least the first three months of pregnancy (63%). It is interesting to note that the age group most supportive of legal abortion was 50-64 (69%), because these are people who first experienced the transition from illegal to legal abortion in their youth, a time when they could observe those such as teenagers start to make use of the procedure to end an obviously negative situation. The other group most supportive of abortion rights was 18-29 year olds (68%). However, this group was starkly unaware of just what kept their rights in place, as the majority of them could not properly identify what Roe vs. Wade was about (only 44% could). The curious thing about this poll is that much like the Gallup Poll, it also found that a high percentage of respondents identified abortion as morally wrong (47%), so people are capable of both disagreeing with it on a personal level and believing that it should still be a legal option for others.

To summarize the complicated views of Americans, it appears that the majority support legal access to abortion, at least for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy while at the same time, a majority do not consider themselves to be pro-choice or personally favorable toward abortion. These personal views are shown by statistics to fall away as a barrier to actually getting an abortion when faced with the reality of an unwanted pregnancy: fully 20% of women who get an abortion describe themselves as evangelical or fundamentalist Christians and 28% are Catholic. Given that dynamic, abortion rights are settled into a particularly tenuous position. People shun them until they need them, so public support for abortion rights becomes scarce even as private need remains substantial (almost half of pregnancies are unintended, and 3 in 10 women have an abortion before age 45: fact sheet). In 2008, the last year reported, there were 1.21 million abortions, and there have been almost 50 million abortions since Roe vs. Wade was decided. Since the majority of women report that their partners were supportive of the decision to get the procedure, there are many millions of men and women who theoretically could be vocal advocates for reproductive rights. But most aren’t. The torch is carried by a relatively small group of determined feminists (both male and female).

Nobody thinks abortion is an optimal outcome. Every pro-choice advocate wants to see contraception made so widely available, and people so well educated on how to use it properly, that abortion becomes less and less necessary. However, in the rush to ensure that everyone knows abortion is not ideal, pro-choice advocates have been placed in a no-win situation. They cannot celebrate abortion. Who would? But, they struggle to counterbalance the overwhelming forces of stigmatization and silencing that cause millions of women who have had the procedure to remain closeted. There have been campaigns by the National Abortion Federation, 45 Million VoicesTrust Women, the 1 in 3 campaign, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL Pro Choice America to have women tell their story about the circumstances that led to their need for an abortion. It’s a chance to break through the socially-imposed muting of women’s voices. But across the country, it isn’t working. The social shaming of women who have had abortions is intense.

Mississippi will be completely without abortion services imminently. Only a few lonely local voices within the state have spoken out against the state-imposed laws that violate the 1992 Planned Parenthood vs. Casey decision that ruled states must not place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortions; a disingenuous judge has ruled they do not. Eliminating the lone remaining abortion clinic entirely via unnecessary regulations has been remarkably easy, and this precedent will no doubt empower other states to make the same move. Robin Marty at RH Reality Check quotes one abortion rights activist who requested to remain anonymous, “This big fear out here isn’t violence, it’s social stigma. There isn’t anyone out here who can support the clinic publicly without facing some sort of personal repercussions.”

More than anything, this has been the success of the anti-reproductive freedom movement, who grandiosely call themselves ‘pro-life’ (yes, of course — right up until the moment of birth): the ability to drive supporters underground using stigma and shame. They have managed to frame women’s choices as selfish instead of thoughtful, reasonable, and necessary. This, despite the fact that 69% of the women who get abortion are economically disadvantaged (42% below the poverty line, another 27% just above it) showing women’s recognition that they cannot provide for a child weighs heavily into their decisions. The anti-choice movement has made those who do speak out in favor of abortion rights seem like they are advocates for criminal-level behavior. The violence, intimidation, and scare tactics that accompany the anti-choice movement only bolster the power of their more powerful stigmatization strategy. It is difficult to know how to fight back against these tactics, but doing so is critical to the survival of reproductive rights for women in this country.

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