By Kieran Mailman
“Do you want me to bring you some tacos?”
It was 7 pm on a Saturday. My abortion, which had started the night before, was wrapping up, and my pantry was empty.
“Yes. Absolutely yes.”
I was starving, and a little tired — and perfectly fine. I didn’t feel different, or empty like the church I grew up in always claimed people did after abortion. I just felt hungry. And tacos sounded perfect.
This lack of emotional turmoil was somehow the most surprising thing to me after my abortion — not the difficulty I had trying to access a clinic, or the lack of on-campus resources for students seeking an abortion, but the fact that all I felt afterwards was relief (and hunger). Weeks later, when there was still no pain, I finally realized my church and the anti-abortion activists I grew up around were wrong: Abortion wasn’t damaging — stigma was.
Abortion stigma impacts everyone, and it can be seen everywhere — including on the presidential debate stage, where some Democratic candidates avoided saying the word “abortion” even though support for abortion rights is a vital part of the Democratic Party platform. In a podcast aired last year, Fr. Frank Pavone of the anti-abortion group Priests for Life made the claim that people who have abortions are “deeply damaged. Not some of the time, but all of the time.” While false, this isn’t an uncommon claim for a movement routinely willing to stretch the truth: many anti-abortion activists believe that abortion damages people both physically and emotionally.
These claims, however, are not based in science. In fact, studies show that people who have abortions are no more at risk for depression or other forms of emotional distress after their abortion than their peers. Another study showed most people who had abortions actually believed that abortion was the right decision for them and had more negative emotions about their pregnancy than they did about their abortion.
As for the alleged negative physical impacts of abortion, there appear to be few health differences between those who gave birth and those who had abortions, with the key difference being that those who gave birth after being denied an abortion were more likely to have health complications such as chronic pain than those who had abortions.
Unfortunately, despite the evidence against these claims, the stigma remains; and, unlike abortion, this stigma can harm people in a number of ways.
One of the major ways abortion stigma harms people is by isolating them. When I had my abortion, I didn’t know anyone else who’d had an abortion; I’d only heard about abortion through my church, and the way it was described there made it sound terrifying and painful. Because of this, I was afraid to tell anyone about my abortion — I didn’t want them to think of me as less-than for accessing the care I needed. This isolation has a clear impact: According to one study, abortion stigma-related isolation is linked to increased levels of psychological distress. To combat this, groups such as We Testify and Shout Your Abortion have created communities where people can speak freely and openly about their abortions. This storytelling helps: There is evidence that people who have heard about the abortions of friends or family members are more likely to be pro-choice.
Abortion stigma can also directly impact the care people receive. A researcher from the University of Buffalo claims that abortion stigma can impact every aspect of abortion care, from when a patient actually attempts to seek care to whether or not they’ll be comfortable asking follow-up questions about their abortion. Stigma is also behind the lack of abortion providers in the U.S., as both abortion and abortion care are portrayed as “deviant”. This portrayal of abortion as “deviant” or morally wrong can in turn lead to violence, which according to Rewire may be causing medical professionals to shy away from abortion care. For me, this manifested in a lack of abortion clinics (the closest was about 60 miles away from my university) and an unwillingness to ask friends for resources, like a ride to the nearest clinic.
Finally, this stigma impacts the legislation created about abortion. As of November, 58 abortion restrictions were enacted in 2019, with 15 states introducing so-called “heartbeat” abortion bans. 2019 also saw five states pass laws requiring physicians to tell patients seeking a medication abortion about so-called “abortion pill reversal,” an unproven anti-abortion theory that claims medication abortions can be “reversed” if only mifepristone is taken. This theory is firmly based in the idea that people who have abortions regret them, again stigmatizing abortion as wrong or regrettable. This idea of regret was very prominent in the church I attended — which is why I was so shocked when, weeks following my abortion, I still only felt relief.
Stigma is a cycle: it keeps people silent about their abortions, which in turn allows myths about abortion to be perpetuated by anti-abortion activists and politicians, which in turn diminishes the number of abortion providers. It can make people too afraid to ask for help when facing unexpected pregnancies, and cause them to feel forced to carry a pregnancy simply because they feel too ashamed to get the help they need.
But stigma doesn’t have to be forever. Through sharing our stories, both with our friends and family and with our legislators, we can spread the truth about abortion and ensure other people considering abortion know they won’t be damaged — they may just be hungry.