Time to end the culture of shame around abortion
This article is part of Canvas’s International Women’s Week mini-issue
In England, Scotland and Wales, women have legally been able to have abortions since 1967 and around 200,000 abortions occur every year. Meanwhile, “approximately 25% of the world’s population lives in countries with highly restrictive abortion laws…women still go to prison for having an illegal abortion, and abortion is not allowed even in cases of rape or when the pregnancy endangers the life of the woman”. Why then is there as much of a culture of shame and silence around abortion in this country, where the law says it is perfectly acceptable, as there is in countries where abortion is legally reprehensible? This article argues that there is an unjustifiable, deeply embedded culture of shame around abortion, that demonises women for accessing them, and that this culture needs to end.
Firstly, there is an important distinction to be made. Caitlin Moran distinguishes between two perceptions of abortions; ‘good’ and ‘bad’. A rape victim or woman whose life is endangered by pregnancy is having a ‘good’ abortion; society does not approve, but it can understand. Conversely, a woman seeking abortion for ‘selfish’ means is having a ‘bad’ abortion. Women who have abortions because they do not feel emotionally ready for parenthood, are not financially prepared, or decide upon abortion late on in their pregnancy, are condemned into silence, and are forced to feel ashamed. I argue that as a woman has a right to control what happens to her body whatever her circumstance, this distinction is wrong; there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ abortion. By labelling certain circumstances as worse than others, inevitably some women will feel guilt and possibly make a decision based on society’s labelling rather than personal feelings, which is simply unacceptable.
“The prevailing attitude these days seems to be that abortion is state-sanctioned murder and we put up with it because if we didn’t, women would have them in back alleys anyway. It is the lesser of two evils, therefore, and as such, must be cloaked in silence, since whichever way you look at it, it still has an evil at its core”. Despite the law permitting abortion, it is not socially acceptable because of an ingrained opinion in society that it is murder. The history of this belief is reflected in the Catholic Church declaring in 1869 that abortion is completely impermissible as ensoulment occurs at conception, meaning that for many, a foetus is a human being from conception rather than at a later stage of development, or birth. This led to most countries implementing anti-abortion laws, and a negative view of abortion permeating society, becoming the norm. Despite the liberalization of abortion laws across some of the developed world in the late 19th century, attitudes in society are decidedly harder to change and the stigma around abortion persists.
Deciding to have an abortion can be an incredibly difficult decision, but it is one that a woman has a right to make based on her own emotions and situation; societal pressures should not play a part in this process. Seeing negative opinions regarding abortions in popular discourse only contributes to the culture of shame. A woman who may be in a fragile emotional state when considering her options is confronted with anti-abortion messages in politics. A prominent female MP, Nadine Dorries, believes in a much shorter window of opportunity for abortion by significantly reducing the term limit; when asked about whether a woman’s feelings or situation should affect their decision, she replied “I don’t care about that”. She gives no justification for her belief that women should be limited in their right to take their time making incredibly important decisions, and dismisses possible issues of the woman with no thought as to how a vulnerable woman might react. Furthermore, Todd Akin, a Republican candidate in the 2012 US presidential race, said of aborting a pregnancy that is a result of rape that “there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child”. This comment may lead a rape victim who was considering abortion to feel guilt, rather than allowing her to deal with a horrific experience in a way that she independently feels comfortable with. A woman has the right to decide what should happen to her body, with no external influence making her feel guilty, ashamed, or at fault. If the culture of shame around abortion were eliminated, more sides of the debate would enter public discourse, meaning a wide range of viewpoints would gain prominence, leading to a better-informed society, and women making decisions independently of unfair pressures.
The issue is how to get a more positive view of abortion as a societal norm. I suggest empowering those who have had abortions to speak up about their experiences, to share them with those going through the same. “The only people who can break the taboo on abortion are people who have had abortions”. To this end, the culture of silence around abortion is highlighted by the charity 45 Million Voices. They encourage women to share their stories on their website because “by keeping women silent, fearful to say that they have had an abortion, shame is induced and automatically attached to abortion” and the only way to break this culture is to discuss abortion openly and honestly. There are hundreds of shocking stories on 45 Million Voices, all written by women who were demonised by loved ones, healthcare professionals, and society, for wanting abortions in many varying circumstances.
The deeply embedded culture of shame regarding abortions has existed for too long, and legal changes have not altered the negative view that society takes towards women who choose abortions. However, there is hope. 45 Million Voices, and the message of opening the discourse on abortion, in order to break the taboo surrounding is a strong call to action. I believe that it will spread, and eventually women will have the freedom and choice to make decisions about their own body.
Article by Hannah Finney
 Moran, C., ‘Abortion’, in How to be a Woman, (Ebury Publishing, 2011, Kindle Edition)