Enough With The Abortion Shame


Shame is very zeitgeist in the reproductive rights landscape at the moment. Or more precisely — and more happily — anti-shame is very zeitgeist.

In think pieces in the New York Times and Boing Boing, online mags like Kveller and Thought Catalogue and in written and video testimonies on websites like 1in3campaign, Exhaleprovoice and 45millionvoices, women are speaking out.

They are resisting shame by breaking their silence about their abortions.

But the success of this fledgling speak-out movement is far from guaranteed.
Indeed, if we want it to succeed, women will need our help.

But before we can stand up for women — and against abortion shame — it’s essential to understand what shame is, how it works and what it does to its victim.

Shame is a social emotion. We aren’t born feeling shame about our nakedness, bodily functions, sex or abortion. Our family and community teach us what things are shameful, and we are made to feel that shame by their real or imagined oversight.

Shame is about fear. But what are we afraid of? According to Brene Brown, one of a number of shame experts, shame is the intensely anxiety producing fear that we are flawed and others are going to find out. If they do, we fear they will demean, ridicule, judge and shun us.

Shame is an ancient mode of social control that sadly is still with us today. Perhaps because it taps into something ancient, possibly even hardwired, in us as humans — our desire to remain in connection with others.

Shame evokes the fear of disconnection.

From what we can tell, shame does not stop many — if any women — from having abortions. But shame does hurt women by causing silence and ignorance.

Two thirds of women anticipate stigma if others learn about their abortion and so between 58 and 60 per cent keep their abortion secret from friends and family and talk about their abortion little or not much at all.

Silence stops women from sharing information about their emotional experience of being pregnant when they don’t want to be, and their practical journey in accessing abortion. This allows false service providers — like pro-life agencies dressed up as all-options counselling services — to ply their trade with neither consequence nor interruption.

Silence also stops women from aiding activists to achieve things like the removal of abortion from the criminal code in each state (it’s still on the books in Queensland and NSW), the existence and adequacy of Medicare rebates for abortion, the matching of safe service provision to need across the nation and the protection of unhappily pregnant women from deceptive and misleading advertising and recruitment practices that currently go unchecked.

Shaming suits those who want to impose their religious opposition to safe and legal abortion on everyone else. That’s because shaming is the gift that keeps on giving. Shame results in silence and ignorance, and silence and ignorance nurture shame.

Both silence and ignorance are the fertile ground in which repressive abortion laws and policies flourish.

There is much we can do to confine abortions stigma to history. Communities induce shame and that means communities can stop it.

The most important is to reach out to women.

The more a woman feels supported by her immediate social networks and especially her partner, the less abortion shame she will experience, with all of shame’s noxious downstream consequences.

So broadcast to the women in your world that if they break their silence and speak out about their abortion, you will not judge or shun them but reach out so they know they’re not alone.

You can put a megaphone to that sentiment by — literally — dancing in the streets. In Melbourne on 30 September 2012, men and women will take part in a flashmob in Melbourne’s CBD.  Their t-shirts will broadcast their message to Australian women everywhere: that we stand for women, and against abortion shaming.

If you can’t participate, invite someone who can. Or start organising a flashmob in your town or capital city. Women have been shamed about abortion for a long time. We’re going to need multiple visible expressions of support for women to continue challenging the shame by breaking their silence.

By reaching out to women, and standing together with others to support them, we will be helping to reverse the shame cycle.

And by turning shame, silence and ignorance into empathy, connection and empowerment, we’ll each be playing our part to change the world for women.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.