Abortion stigma and oppression of women

On June 24, in a historic decision with its widespread ramifications, the U.S. Supreme Court officially reversed Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion upheld for nearly a half century. The ruling has sent shock waves among activists and rights groups, with many expressing concern that the step is a major setback for women’s rights, gender equality and their ability to choose for themselves. Twenty-six states are likely to restrict and ban abortions in the next weeks in the United States and people seeking access to abortion or healthcare workers assisting are likely to face penalties. 

For years, pregnant individuals have relied on Roe for the recognition of their reproductive rights and bodily autonomy, but that is going to change. Marginalized groups with meagre resources and limited access to safe abortion services are more likely to bear the brunt of this decision. 

Abortion is healthcare and a basic human right. Where countries such as Argentina and Colombia are making great strides in legalizing, or say, making access to abortion easier, the United States is going in an opposite, backward direction. It is imperative to stand with women in the U.S. who are now facing an uphill task of fighting for their basic reproductive rights. Women of color and individuals coming from low-income backgrounds deserve even more solidarity as they are likely to suffer more. The reversal of Roe, after all, has the potential to cheer retrogression and anti-abortion measures in other countries too — given how the matter is already of an extremely sensitive nature.  

In late 2020, massive protests shook Poland, another Western country, over its anti-abortion laws. Under a near-total ban introduced in the Central European state, abortion is only permitted if the pregnancy threatens the life or health of a mother, or if it results from a criminal act. Abortion has also been allowed, post 1993, if a serious birth defect is detected in the fetus.

More recently, the Polish parliament rejected a bill that would have liberalized the country’s abortion law – which is already one of the strictest in Europe – by allowing terminations on demand  up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Countries have had a history of criminalizing and illegalizing abortion and the debate has been influenced by several factors, ranging from moral to religious dilemmas. 

However, according to a few researchers, another possibility for this strong opposition is also rooted in the stigma which continues to impact women in several ways. The stigma essentially sustains and relies on power disparities and inequalities, according to a 2009 study called Conceptualizing Abortion Stigma.

The study contends that  health-related stigma develops across a broad array of societal contexts and is played out in a local setting in the context of social relationships and cultural constructs.

“In the case of abortion stigma, there is limited understanding of how it takes root in particular communities, what its impact is and how it can be countered,” the study further states. “The moral worlds in which abortions take place may or may not include controversies about reproductive physiology (the beginning of life, foetal viability, foetal pain), normative sexuality, policies related to abortion (its legal status, how it should be paid for, who is the ultimate decision-maker – woman, male partner or health professional), cultural and religious norms, demographic and political trends and family dynamics. It is entirely possible that there are situations in which abortion stigma does not exist, is minimal or is less stigmatized than another condition,” it  adds.

Also termed as a concealable stigma, it affects people involved in abortion provision, including doctors and nurses and those who support women in this pursuit – such as partners and family members, calling for more attention towards it in order to address abortion-related issues.

Even in countries with free or very liberal abortion, for instance Denmark, there’s still a stigma attached as a lot of women feel some kind of shame about having the procedure done.

Anti-abortion laws and measures are some of the ways through which patriarchy tries to control and oppress us women and our bodies. Social constructs and religious narratives have further solidified the stigma and misconceptions around abortion and a fetus is used to come to decisions that women should be making for themselves. The recent ruling, nonetheless, puts humanity to shame and sets a bad precedent.   

About the Author
The writer is a journalist from Pakistan, mostly covering social issues and women's rights, and an Erasmus Mundus scholar currently based in Prague.
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