Abortion Stigma

In 1969, one of my housemates, Michelle, and I offered to drive a colleague from Fort Collins CO to Denver. All three of us worked at Luby’s Cafeteria. Michelle and I worked part time because we also attended Colorado State University while our friend, Linda, worked full time. Linda was a 30-something divorcee with two children living in a trailer park with her Baptist parents. She had started dating again and found herself with an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. So she arranged for an abortion and needed a ride and an alibi. The story she told her parents (who would be watching her children) was that she was stepping out for the evening with friends and would crash at our house (we were five women who shared a really large rental home). That was her cover story. The real story was quite different. She could not tell them she was pregnant. Unmarried women, according to her parents, did not have sex, did not get pregnant and, sure as hell, did not have an abortion. Linda was convinced that if they knew she was pregnant, they would throw her out on the street.

So, with the best of intentions, Michelle and I made the one-hour trip to Denver with our friend. She was understandably nervous about the arrangement she made over the phone with a strange man, the abortionist. The plan was to meet him at a motel on West Colfax Avenue, cash in hand, where he would perform her abortion. It’s kind of amazing to think about legislators and antis talking about waiting periods and ambulatory surgical requirements now. Our friend had an abortion on a motel bed without any assurance that the man was a doctor, without any assurance that the man had hospital privileges, without any anesthesia, without any assurances of sterility, without any guarantees that she would live and without any state required speeches about pregnancy options.

I do not recall much of the trip. Knowing the three of us, we likely chatted like magpies. I also loved to drive. So, zipping down the highway was just a way of life for me. It wasn’t until we arrived at the crummy looking motel, that I began to feel afraid for Linda as she got out of the car. She seemed scared. Michelle and I watched her enter the designated motel room and the door close behind her. Our instructions were to pick her up in two hours, as best I can recall.

Keep in mind those were not the days of cell phones. We couldn’t text or call her. And we knew not to knock on the motel door. Instead, Michelle and I went to the local favorite, a coffee shop called the White Spot.

They were all over the metropolitan Denver area and had one of the best waffles around. Whether for greasy comfort food, post party munchies or waiting for a friend, the cheap eats at the White Spot were just the ticket.

From the recesses of my memory, I recall feeling anxious while Michelle, a veteran of abortion, seemed more comfortable. I was 20 years old and naïve. I didn’t know anything about abortions except hushed conversations about girls desperately scrapping together funds to go to Mexico or Sweden. I didn’t know even that much about sex or pregnancy. Thinking about this naiveté (or ignorance) now, as I write this post, reminds me of our 2006 documentary fieldwork with junior high students in Allentown. The kids were making digital stories about issues that impacted their community like speeding, litter, graffiti and recreational parks for kids. In what was likely the hottest day on record, our digital documentary campers were doing fieldwork in downtown Allentown when one of the antiabortion ‘truth trucks’ rolled down Hamilton Boulevard. One of the young girls, a nine year old, saw the truck and said, “That’s why I won’t use birth control.” I was astounded at her misperceptions (but said nothing to correct her because it wasn’t my place). But considering my ignorance back in 1969 and her misperceptions in 2006, there seemed to be little difference in terms of naiveté. But I digress.

After polishing our waffles, swilling gallons of coffee, and polluting our lungs with cigarette after cigarette, we eventually returned to the West Colfax motel. Linda was cramping but seemed otherwise OK. I felt a bit of relief because she was with us.

But by the time we got Linda settled in our house, things took a turn for the worse. She began bleeding really heavily. I drove to the drug store for sanitary pads. But the bleeding worsened still. She soaked through an entire box of super soaker pads in no time. Fortunately, we had enough sense to take her to the emergency room. She survived, thanks to an emergency hysterectomy, a short visit to ICU and several transfusions.

This is before Roe v Wade. Others weren’t so lucky.

Despite the claims of protesters, adoption or parenting may not be the best choice.  And certainly painting women with a big red letter A is not the best choice either. In fact, there’s evidence that refutes the protesters’ claims to “Wait another six months and you’ll grow to love the child” or “Give your baby up for adoption. That’s the better choice” or “Your baby loves you.” Researchers found many negative consequences for mothers and children when a woman chooses to carry such a pregnancy to term, including late presentation for prenatal care, a decrease in health promotion behaviors during pregnancy, continued alcohol and nicotine use during pregnancy, premature delivery, low-birth-weight infants, infants that are small for gestational age, inconsistent or no presentation for well- baby care, and a lack of breastfeeding.

An unwanted pregnancy increases the likelihood that the infant’s health will be compromised and it also shows poor outcomes for maternal fetal bonding should the birth mother keep and raise the child. These researchers also point out that poor mother–child relationships are not specific to the unwanted child; all of the children in the family suffer when the mother has given birth to a child as a result of an unwanted pregnancy. Many mothers with unwanted pregnancies deliver low or very low birth weight infants who have been associated with higher levels of maternal psychological distress including depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive behaviors.

Unwanted pregnancy and delivery has also been shown to be associated with postpartum depression, feelings of powerlessness, increased time pressures, and impaired physical health. Regardless of whether the woman keeps or gives the child up for adoption, she must actually go through the physical act of an unwanted pregnancy and unwanted childbirth. Researchers posit that this is likely to lead to significant feelings of powerlessness which have been significantly associated with the development of depression and anxiety, as well as with malaise, physical illness, and alcoholism. The research cited above shows that although there is no evidence for widespread and consistent symptoms of mental health disorders among women after an elective abortion, there actually may be significant negative consequences of unwanted childbearing for the mental health of the mother. This raises the question of whether an unqualified call for adoption is really a better option for maternal mental health. A mother who chooses to give up her child for adoption still has to undergo an unwanted pregnancy and childbirth with all of the poor potential outcomes that this may entail. Further, a child with health complications given up for adoption may not be seen as the most desirable candidate for prospective families and may languish in foster care. Additionally, the mental health of women who have given their children up for adoption has not been studied in depth owing to privacy laws that maintain the confidentiality of birth mothers. Most research on adoption has been conducted to determine factors that cause or result in mental health problems for children who have been adopted with the resounding finding being that most adoptees fall within the normal range of psychological functioning. Research that has been conducted on birth mother outcomes after relinquishment of the infant has found that having given up a child is perceived by birth mothers as having a long-term negative influence on their lives in the areas of marriage, fertility, and parenting subsequent children. Similarly, other research found that clinical symptoms for birth parents include unresolved grief, isolation, difficulty with future relationships, and trauma, and that the evidence for increased rates of depression among birth mothers (51% of respondents endorsed severe depression since relinquishment and 97% endorsed some level of depression [mild, moderate, or severe]). Last, in a review of articles, researchers found a grief reaction unique to birth mothers who had surrendered their children for adoption. This grief reaction consists of the typical features of the normal grief reaction; however, the symptoms persist and often lead to chronic unresolved grief.

So, let me put this in perspective using some mental health facts for women’s mental health, related to pregnancy in the United States.

Approximately 2,000,000-3,4000,000 women have the ‘baby blues’ –mild depression–after childbirth.

Approximately 400,000-600,000 women experience significant depression after birth.

Approximately 4,000-8,000 women experience psychosis after birth. Psychotic episodes are potentially dangerous for both the woman and the child and must be considered a life-threatening condition.

Similarly, the CDC claims that every year some eight million women suffer pregnancy-related complications and over half a million die from them.

  • 11.0 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women.
  • 34.8 deaths per 100,000 live births for black women.
  • 15.7 deaths per 100,000 live births for women of other races.

Yet, according to the CDC’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System. In 2006, the most recent year for which data were available, six women were reported to have died as a result of complications from known legal induced abortions.

The antiabortion movement has argued forcefully that abortion should be illegal because it is dangerous for women’s physical health and because some women experience emotional difficulties afterwards. According to that logic, perhaps we should make childbirth illegal. Flawed logic aside, the above suggests that we renew our efforts to respect and trust women and to support their family planning regardless of their choices (because they are ‘their’ choices).

Over the past few years, I have collected little gems about abortion from journalists, commenters, patients, bloggers and colleagues. Distilled from their comments are lessons to be learned from women who speak out about abortion and other reproductive health care issues.

Abortion isn’t a Sin

Saying abortion is a “grave sin” translates to your hang-ups and your religious judgment. Abortion is a very complex decision women make for their own moral reasons and sin doesn’t factor into the decision.

Abortion isn’t Wrong

Abortion access is an important issue for Christians concerned with social justice. When 1 in 3 American women will have an abortion, it’s no wonder that religious folks like Rev. Briere, Rev. Rebecca Turner, Catholics for Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, know so many women who have needed this medical service. We should sincerely thank all religious progressives for their humanist perspective on this because too often we hear of the extremist conservative Christians trying to claim moral high ground while shaming and disrespecting women.

The Life of a Woman is Precious

If life is precious, why are you willing to force women to continue a pregnancy that can kill them? Are their lives less important than the potential life of the fetus?

Women and their right to bodily autonomy and self-determination are precious.

There is nothing precious about an unwanted pregnancy.

What part of DOES NOT WANT TO BE PREGNANT is too complicated and confusing for you?

The Fetus is Non Sentient and Inexpressive

Mindless, oblivious, nonviable tissue and cells cannot ‘want’ anything, cannot want to go to the beach, cannot love you.

An embryo isn’t capable of being innocent.

The fetus until late in gestation is mindless, insensate, nonviable, and oblivious. Until there is a functional cerebral cortex there is ‘no one home’.

Abortion is Taking Responsibility

Abortion is taking responsibility. There is nothing responsible about having a child you don’t want and can’t feed, clothe, house and educate.

Women are feeling, reasoning human beings who have the right to decide if and when they want to be pregnant.

Good Women Have Abortions

Good women make good decisions every day to terminate or continue their pregnancies. Women are perfectly capable of making decisions about their pregnancies. It’s time for the rest of world to respect that capability.

Sex is My Business

Sex isn’t wrong. Sex is natural. Being sexual is God-given just like feet, hands, mouths, and brains.

STFU. My uterus, my business. You can pound sand.

Saying I have to endure nine months of rape just because the way my body was developed means that, in order to show respect, I can’t determine my own bodily autonomy. You are victimizing me because I have a uterus.

Crisis Pregnancy Centers

I find it not just morally wrong for these “clinics” to exist but also personally insulting as it seems that all I would have to have done to be a healthcare professional is love Jesus, and spew propaganda at vulnerable women.

Women Don’t Regret Their Abortions

The most common emotion women feel post abortion is relief. If women feel negative emotions, they are probably a result of the antiabortion movement itself. After all, the picketers who scream “murderer” at women entering clinics are significant stress-inducers.

After nearly ten years of observing anti abortion protesters, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. The commonplace protester is white with red-neck tendencies, scientifically-challenged, medically inept, dogmatically deluded, and generally diversity-defiant. Additionally, among this dreary assortment are folks with waistlines that are in direct correspondence to their intellectual capacity and women who are seriously fashion-challenged. Owing to their brainwashing, they are as useless as scuffed brown shoes without soles. In fact, their products, their messages and their brands are like Wonder Bread in an artisanal bakery, Oscar Mayer bologna in an Italian salumeria or a Hostess Twinkie in a French patissierie. Compared to the creativity of the majority who trust women to make decisions for themselves about abortion and contraception, these interchangeable trolls are boring with a capital B. Standardized, commercialized, reproducible fiends fit for no one, they arrive at clinics across the nation every Saturday morning to worship what they cherish: themselves and imaginary babies. But, they worship with the same old tunes, the same old messages, and the same old signage.

I’ll acknowledge that there are a minority who are more creatively odd than most.  For example, in Allentown, PA, one fruitcake fetal crusader thought it was perfectly OK to use holy water to “baptize” women’s abdomens as they entered the walkway to the clinic. Of course, she did not ask permission for this conjured rite. Another woman, named Mary, performing in the street with chanting and invocations, sprinkled holy water on the clinic door and pedestrian walkway and then doused herself from head to toe with the water. With that last act, I thought the local loony bin had misplaced one of their inmates. Mary was one of those protesters who gave voice to the phantom fetus by yelling “I want to live. Please don’t kill me.” There are other protesters, like Joyce, who thinks ventriloquism will convince women not to abort. She uses a saccharine falsetto voice to grind out “Mommy, Mommy please don’t kill me, Mommy.” Then there’s old white Joe who invokes Martin Luther King’s name as if he was Jesus Junior every time he sees a person of color. Making unknowable claims about King’s position on abortion, Joe wallows in racist comments. But as Dr. Wallace Best, a religion and African American studies professor at Princeton succinctly stated, King “stood for justice, equality and fairness and certainly against any kind of discrimination,” something Joe will never understand nor ever embrace.

Anyway, the overwhelming majority of protesters use messages that are simply banal. What we’re left with are reruns week in, week out. It’s a stark contrast to the more progressive folks who use vivid messaging in support of women.

In Kentucky, one abortion clinic attracts the best and the worst. The volunteer escorts are the best at walking women to the clinic past some of the most vile protesters I’ve ever seen. They have a Mary there too. She’s one serious whackadoodle, complete with her big bible, hellfire and brimstone. She’s also a shover. She has no problem shoving escorts, no guilt about blocking women from exiting their cars and no difficulty telling women they’re “gonna burn in hell for eternity” or “The bible says thou shalt not kill.” Mary is also a holy roller big into laying on a hands and so animated that I wonder if she’s really just a busker. Joined by this Pentecostal type are snoopy, arrogant priests. They add their crucifixes and rosaries to the cacophony known as the circus of the absurd. There is nothing like a weird brew of stewed priests and salty Baptists to give a Saturday morning its special flavor. It’s what’s on the menu every Saturday morning in this lovely southern city. In comparison to this Barnum & Bailey environment, progressive men and women assert their support for women with ingenious and encouraging messaging.

In Allen, TX, women seeking abortions don’t stand a chance with the droll protesters. Whether speaking in English or Spanish, they swarm women as they attempt to walk on the sidewalk leading to the clinic. Working in pairs, one walks in front of the women, offering help while the one in the back keeps repeating, “You’re making a big mistake. You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.” Other protesters line the sidewalk should to shoulder with their typical accessories: rosaries, Guadalupe image, crucifix, and other assorted signs. Because of the proximity to Mexico, much of the city’s population speaks Spanish. So, the protesters have translated their same old, desert-dry messages. Que lastima! But some bilingual women have created posters that cut right to the heart of the issue.

In North Aurora, IL, the abortion clinic is relatively new but the anti abortion trolls look the same. Same old tired signs, same old anger, same old righteous indignation that women have a choice about what to do with their reproductive health. They use the tiny white coffins lining the sidewalk (been there, done that), plaster the surrounding area with signs (been there, done that), tell women that they will regret their abortion (been there, done that). Yawn!!! Is this the best that this mid-west city can produce? Where is the ingenuity? It’s with the progressives, that’s where!

What I have noticed is that most of the freak shows keep using the same old materials. The same old fetal images. The same old bloody Malachi image that they worship. The same old rosaries and the same old worn bibles. The same old messages. The same old white men and women. The same old dumpy dimwits. It’s like going to going to same movie or reading the same book—the ending is always the same. Even the well-funded extremists like Flip Benham and Troy Newman are forever using the same old stuff. I had to laugh at Newman’s braggadocio back in October 2007 when he claimed his Operation Rescue rocked Fargo, ND with their purported “Truth Truck” and their literature. Well, guess what? It’s 2012 and his latest visit to Fargo this month had the same result. Zip. Zilch.

I’m hoping that one of these days there will be someone with a fresh approach, something new and innovative. But to do that, they’ll have to infuse a bit more intellectual and creative energy. Sadly, intelligence and creativity are missing within the anti abortion cartel. For now, it’s just the same old freak shows, same stuff, different day that net the same old results. Zippity Do Da.

I’m traveling for this month….out west with all the wild ones. So here’s something to ponder.

I’ve noticed some frightening commonalities between rape culture and antiabortion culture. According to Marshall University Women’s Center, rape culture normalizes violence against women. It’s perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.

So when I look at anti abortion culture, it’s not too different, in principle, because it uses misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies as incubators for fetuses and the glamorized morality of violence against women seeking abortions and against professionals providing abortions. This anti abortion culture creates a milieu that disregards women’s reproductive rights and their safety at abortion clinics. In fact, anti abortion culture is founded on a perverted desire that turns people away from goodness, enslaves them to a need that is forever unsatisfied and roots itself in depravity (some would call it sin).

Rape culture teaches young adolescents that heterosexuality in THE norm. It teaches young men that it’s OK to make rape jokes, to watch pornography and to degrade males who aren’t hyper-masculine. Anti abortion culture is not much different–it teaches young men and women that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. It teaches them that it’s OK to stigmatize women who choose abortion, to threaten them with violence, and to foist their grotesque media on innocent women. And while some might object to the comparison of rape culture to anti abortion culture, the issue of consent is hard to deny.

Some research and legal definitions of rape are based on the idea that non-consent should be assumed until someone actively consents, whether verbally or nonverbally. While research and legal definitions might work for rape, it’s harder to define consent when anti abortion protesters actively accost women outside abortion clinics. Whether verbally or nonverbally, an anti abortion protester doesn’t need consent to violate a woman because of free speech rights. A woman entering a clinic may be unable to freely give consent to anti abortion protesters who attempt to violate her privacy as a result of fear, the threat of harm, or a sense of obligation or coercion to listen to their messages. And anti abortion protesters take every advantage of these women with the same gratuitous violence as a rapist, only they hide behind their thin veneer of religiosity.

Rape culture like anti abortion culture:

Blames the woman

Defines the female as promiscuous

Allows sexually aggressive men to avoid responsibility for their behavior

Tolerates sexual harassment

Objectifies women’s bodies

And most importantly, both rape culture and anti abortion culture require no consent to degrade women.

Abortion. It’s not a dirty word. If a woman doesn’t want to be pregnant, she should not, under any circumstances, be unduly burdened to carry the pregnancy to term. And unruly strangers should never victimize women with their antediluvian meanness, pathological prudishness, and morality mongering.

Antediluvian Meanness

In 2012, it is beyond comprehension how a radical fringe is allowed to promote an agenda based on primeval, misogynist ideology. In locales around the nation, women are treated to heartless invectives just because they choose to enter a clinic. A woman with an appointment shouldn’t be treated with the unmitigated nastiness that is so common outside abortion clinics. So-called sidewalk counselors claim they offer help but what they really specialize in is unbridled callousness toward women and their companions. More commonly called protesters, these mean-spirited folks claim they know what is best for a woman. The use lines like “you know you’re killing yourself and your child” or “do the right thing and don’t be so selfish” or, my favorite (thanks to a particularly nasty woman nicknamed the Walrus), “they’re gonna turn your baby into road-kill” or screaming across a large parking lot to a woman entereing the clinic door, “You’re baby is gonna haunt you at night.”

Like I said, abortion is not a dirty word. Some cruel folks just like to make it seem like it is.

Pathological Prudishness

Sex is natural. It’s fun. Not to be overly religious, but sexuality is a God-given gift to be used as we humans feel is right. But there are those among the unruly strangers (and now amongst some of the nation’s legislators) who would likely be happy if they could put chastity belts on every female who has become of age. Arguing against contraception, against sex before marriage (because of their heteronormativity), and against sex unless it is for procreation. But sex for the majority is part of everyday living. It’s not some filthy necessity to get over, not some lascivious activity of perverts and certainly not wrong/abnormal/disgusting. Of course, any discussion of sex by yourself, called masturbation, would curl their toes because that’s a sin.


And speaking of sin, these protesters know all about morality. They quote from their litany of spiritual mumbo jumbo and kiss their rosary beads, saying “In the name of the Father” then launch a verbal grenade at a women with the same breath. They claim abortion is murder. They tell women God is offended by abortion. A particularly vitriolic man named Gerry told a woman whose daughter was raped and pregnant, “If she got pregnant, it was God’s will.” Another protester lied to a woman entering the clinic when she said, “Don’t go in there. My best friend died there last week.” No one had died, ever. What happened to the stuff about not lying? Another protester, mocked for her  undulations nicknamed the pee pee dance, loved to get into women’s face and ask all manner of personal questions about her physical body or talk about rolling around in the sheets–in front of everyone standing outside. While I’m aware that these protesters think they are morally upright citizens, I argue that their behavior is immoral. Their mere presence terrifies women. Their signs disgust them. And their words immeasurably and negatively impact how women feel about them. And, yet, the protesters are blinded by either their faith or delusions or both.

As evidenced by the number of abortions in the United States, abortion is the right option for women who face an unplanned pregnancy. However, recognizing that abortion is not for everyone, that adoption is the right choice for some women while parenting is the right choice for others, the bigger point is this: It’s a woman’s choice. Period.

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