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Abortion's Stigma

By Jackie Powder

Induced abortion is one of the most common medical procedures that women undergo worldwide. Yet little is understood about abortion's stigma and its effects on women's emotional and physical health.

"As access to abortion becomes more restricted in the U.S. and public debate about it continues to be heated, there is potential for abortion to become more stigmatized, not less," says Kristen Shellenberg, a doctoral student in Population, Family and Reproductive Health.

Shellenberg recently analyzed abortion-related stigma based on qualitative interviews and focus groups with women and men in five countries—Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Peru, where abortion is illegal—and the U.S., where it is legal (though state and federal actions over the past 25 years have imposed limits on access). The data are from a multicountry study on managing unwanted pregnancies sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health.

Legal or illegal, across class, country and race, two main findings emerged: While abortion-related stigma doesn't appear to deter women from deciding to terminate a pregnancy, it does prevent them from discussing the procedure—with family, friends and even partners—once they've had one.

Women from all five countries cited fears of harassment and rejection as potential consequences of having an abortion. Although the intensity of the stigma is more pronounced in the countries where abortion is illegal (women who have abortions were described as "evil," "murderers" and "not normal"), American participants also expressed reservations about sharing their abortion experiences.

Such stigma-induced secrecy can be dangerous, notes Shellenberg, especially if it prevents women from seeking health care in the event of post-abortion complications.