Kate Cockrill, a researcher who studies stigma and abortion at UCSF, recently wrote about her attendance at the Princeton Open Hearts/Open Minds conference on the blog of ANSIRH (a Pro-Voice High-Five Awardee for New Research). In contemplating the lack of women’s voices at the conference, Kate poses some good questions about the role of women who have had abortions in public discussion. She writes:
If 1.3 million women have an abortion every year, then why is it that so few women speak publicly or even privately about their abortions? What would happen if women began to speak up? How would it change the debate? I think that it is safe to say that the prochoice movement is a movement for women who are considering abortions or need abortions. It is a legal movement oriented toward preserving the right to abortion.
Addressing the role of stigma in women’s silence, Kate writes:
Stigma is clearly a major culprit in women’s public silence about their abortions. To talk about one’s abortion publicly is to risk losing credibility on a variety of levels. But there are many other reasons that women don’t talk publicly about their abortions. Maybe the reason for their own abortion is not the reason they are attempting to highlight in their advocacy. Maybe they don’t want to upset a family member or ex-partner who might be sensitive to their decision. Maybe it feels like a private experience that they don’t want to explore publicly at that moment. Maybe it still feels raw. Maybe it just doesn’t feel salient anymore.
No matter the reason, speaking about a personal abortion experience publicly means taking on personal risk. Instead of asking where the voices are, we could work harder to reduce the risk that women incur when they speak from their own experience. We can and should be demonstrating and demanding nonjudgmental listening. We should encourage honesty and should support a range of experiences. We should not discriminate against some experiences while highlighting others. We should support private spaces for women to discuss their experiences with those who can listen and understand, better yet, people who have also “been there.” We should demand that all women have access to emotional care at the time of their abortion and after. In fact, I would argue that when these demands are absent from our advocacy, we aren’t really advocating for women who have had abortions.
Women who have abortions do not live in a world of nonjudgmental support. When their own abortion is at issue they can expect judgment, criticism and rejection. So many women are very careful about who they share their experience with or who they seek support from. In fact if you do not personally know someone who has had an abortion, it’s most likely because you are not considered a safe person to tell. While politically-motivated public and private disclosure is encouraged by both sides of the debate, the real stories of real women are not adequately supported by either side of the public debate. So, when women don’t come forward with their stories…we have to wonder if we’re partly to blame.
In relating how she experienced the conference, Kate summarizes:
Conversations like the ones I had at OHOM may not bring us any closer to common ground on the abortion issue; however, I think they do promote a common culture based on values that can be shared by either side. Curiosity. Dignity. Respect. Peace.
Thank you Kate!