My Abortion, My Activism: The Impact of Stigma

| Nov 20, 2012

This blog post was published in conjunction with Repro Health Watch, an exciting new edition of the Women’s Health Policy Report, which compiles and distributes media coverage of proposed and enacted state laws, ballot initiatives and litigation affecting women’s access to comprehensive reproductive health care.

Like all of our clients at the Georgia Reproductive Justice Access Network (GRJAN), Jane* called us in desperation. She had become pregnant after her birth control failed, and she simply couldn’t afford another child. She and her husband already had two children, and they were barely making ends meet, requiring government assistance to feed themselves and their children.

Jane never had an abortion before, and she was floored at the costs of the procedure nearly $1,500! So she contacted us at GRJAN for help in funding her abortion as well as transporting her back and forth from the clinic to her friend’s home.

I volunteered to be one of Jane’s drivers. After picking Jane up from the clinic when it was over, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for dinner. I figured she’d be hungry because she had to fast for her procedure. And as we talked, Jane became pensive. She was clearly ambivalent about her abortion. She knew she made the right decision for herself, her family, and her community, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d done something wrong. Eventually, she lowered her eyes and said, “I know this is stupid, but… do you think God will take away any of my children because I’m getting rid of this one? I’m just so worried that I’m going to lose one of my children now as punishment for my abortion.” My heart sank. I looked at her and responded, “No, I don’t think God works like that.”

I share this story because it highlights the impact abortion stigma has upon individuals having abortions as well as persons who are in any way associated with abortion clinic workers, abortion doctors, abortion rights advocates, among many others. And it is without a doubt the stigmatization of abortion that plays the most detrimental role in organizing around abortion access initiatives in the Southeast, the so-called “Bible Belt,” where the religious and ideological imperative toward “protecting the sanctity of life” dominates.

For our clients and us, such an imperative is insidious, burrowing itself into our psyches and producing feelings of shame, guilt, and humiliation. Not only do our clients live in perpetual fear of being “found out” about their abortions, but we, too, find ourselves being always “on guard” concerning our work. After all, we’ve begun to receive anti-abortion mail, and we know that doing this type of work isn’t without its dangers. We struggle to find volunteers and raise the money necessary to provide the practical support (transportation, lodging, and childcare) and funding for our clients because so few people want to be linked to abortion.

And I should know. I was 14 when I became pregnant and part of a poor family, living in rural Georgia. At the time of my abortion, my family lived at approximately 154% of the federal poverty line the highest income level my family had ever achieved. We could barely afford the money necessary for basic living expenses, let alone the funds for a costly procedure like an abortion. And my mother was forced to cover the costs of my abortion by credit card, a notable risk to my family as we were already in thousands of dollars of debt.

Understandably, my mother was disappointed and stressed. Not only was her teenage daughter pregnant, but now she had to cover the costs of her daughter’s abortion procedure when she could barely put food on the table! But sadly, her stress manifested as anger an anger that left me to face my abortion alone in a conservative and rural area. My last memory before the procedure is of tears rolling down my cheeks as I was placed under anesthesia, and the nurse wiping away my tears, whispering, “It’ll be alright… It’ll be alright.”

After the procedure, my mother made me vow to never speak of my abortion to anyone not my father, not my family, not even my close friends lest they discover my shame. – I returned to school the next day as if nothing had ever happened.

And it is with these experiences that I joined and continue to work with GRJAN toward enacting a world of reproductive justice, where all people can make the reproductive decisions so vital to their well-being without shame or stigma. I personally know how difficult the decision to terminate a pregnancy can be even after the procedure has occurred. By working with GRJAN, even while working part-time and going to school full-time, I hope to help others, like Jane, from having to go through an abortion all alone and in secrecy.

*Names and details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of our client.

Melinda Mckew, Board Member of Georgia Reproductive Justice Access Network (GRJAN) and a Women’s Studies Graduate Student at Georgia State University