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Breaking the Silence Around Abortion

by Aimee Thorne-ThomsenPEP Executive Director

I want to talk about abortion. Or more specifically, I want to talk about how we talk about abortion. Two recent developments around abortion have generated lots of buzz in our community. Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP) released the findings of a research project which presents new messages for how activists can talk about abortion, as well as how we can build greater support for abortion. Exhale launched a series of electronic cards to support women who have had abortions.

Both RHTP and Exhale are providing the movement with new tools that broaden the dialogue around abortion and address the stigma surrounding it. Now obviously, any tool is only as good as our ability to use it to connect with people meaningfully and to galvanize them to take some action. And yet, I think that Exhale and RHTP present us with interesting opportunities to re-examine how we think about, and ultimately talk about abortion.

RHTP’s new messaging strategy highlights what many of us would prefer not to acknowledge—that many people feel ambivalent about abortion. Some of my colleagues fear that this frames abortion negatively and  further stigmatizes women who have had abortions. I would argue that in recognizing someone’s complicated feelings about abortion we have an opportunity to extend the conversation.

The truth is people hold a variety of feelings, values and beliefs about abortion. And until we acknowledge this fact, we will continue to be seen as irrelevant and out of touch with the public. Acknowledging and meeting people where they are establishes our credibility and opens up the conversation, instead of shutting it down Exhale stirred up controversy by introducing a series of electronic cards that offer sympathy, encouragement and support for women who have had abortions. One card reads, “I think you are strong, smart, thoughtful and caring. I believe in you and your ability to make the right decision. I think you did the right thing.”

Some activists feel that these e-cards stigmatize abortion further by treating it differently than other medical procedures. Others want to know why there is no card congratulating a woman on her abortion. And yet, what has emerged in the discussions surrounding the cards is not so much the messages of the cards or their appropriateness, but rather that some women want support after an abortion. And they deserve to get it. Sending an e-card is just one more way to do that.

I understand that some believe that by adopting these strategies and tools we somehow concede that abortion is wrong and give the Right more ammunition to restrict abortion. I challenge that orthodoxy. For too long our approach has silenced those who have complicated feelings about abortion and pushed them away from us. And we know that those people are often people of color and young women. Our silencing has the added effect of enforcing a kind of ideological purity test around abortion that  even some of us who work in the movement would not pass.

If we are going to keep abortion legal and accessible, and support the women who have abortions, we cannot continue to use the same tactics. I think that RHTP and Exhale have taken important steps toward meeting people where they are on abortion and opening up the conversation. These tools may not work for everyone, but they do provide new ways of engaging people around abortion for whom previous
efforts have not resonated. And they come not a moment too soon.

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