This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
Several high-profile public figures, such as Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, Texas State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, and Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, have recently made headlines by disclosing their abortions to the world. But a new study says that for most people, revealing the fact that they had an abortion is by no means that public of an act—and thanks to stigma, they often hesitate to tell more than one or two trusted family members, partners, or friends.
Published in the journal Sociological Science on Monday, New York University researcher Sarah K. Cowan surveyed 1,607 American adults about their experiences with abortion and miscarriage disclosures, examining how often people discussed the former when compared with the latter. Though, as Cowan noted, induced abortions are more common than recognized miscarriages, Cowan found that it is far more likely for people to have heard about an experience with the former than the latter. According to Cowan’s study, three-quarters of people surveyed had heard about a miscarriage from a family member or friend, while only half had heard an abortion story.
Cowan’s research also found that people who have miscarriages share that experience more often—77 percent of people who have had a miscarriage tell others about it, while only 66 percent of those who have had abortions do so—and with an average of 1.39 more people.
Why the discrepancy? Abortion stigma. According to the Sea Change Program, a nonprofit that researches stigmatized reproductive experiences, abortion stigma is the belief that abortion is socially or morally unacceptable. People who have abortions are less likely to share them because they are worried about the judgment from the person hearing the story. This also explains why Cowan found that Americans who hold conservative views on abortion are 21 percent less likely to have heard someone’s abortion story than those who do not—people are evidently more inclined to share their stories to those with a seemingly welcome ear. Additionally, those who support abortion only in the cases of rape, incest, or health of the pregnant person are 12 percent less likely than those who believe it should be generally available to hear an abortion story.
Overall, Cowan determined that even those who have had abortions themselves either believe it to be shameful or fear being ostracized by their loved ones.
“A third of women who have had an abortion have kept it a secret from someone with whom they usually talk about personal matters,” said Cowan in a press release about the study. “Abortions are predominantly kept secret from immediate family members. People keep abortions—their own and others’—a secret for reasons of privacy and to protect the [person] who had the abortion from stigma.”
This fear of stigma leaves many people who have had abortions feeling as if they have no one to talk to about their experience. Research has shown that the presence of after-abortion emotional support in a medical setting can positively impact those who want to talk to someone, but it’s not the same as the ability to speak to a friend or family member openly beyond a single clinic visit. For that matter, a single round of speaking with a near-stranger is not the same as knowing that there are loved ones in the patient’s life who will stand by her decision.
In addition to causing those who have sought abortions to feel abandoned or isolated, this societal reluctance to discuss abortion has a harmful effect on others’ stances on reproductive rights. Studies have suggested that those who hear abortion stories are more likely to have a positive shift in their attitude toward abortion, those who held explicitly negative attitudes beforehand. However, as Cowan showed, those who are hostile toward abortion are less likely to hear those real abortion stories at all, which, in turn, means that they won’t change their minds anytime soon.
At a time when most Americans have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to abortion, this cycle leaves those who aren’t supportive of abortion without a real perspective on the issue—effectively locking attitudes on reproductive rights in something of a stalemate.
“These differences in what Americans hear can affect public opinion, potentially helping explain the relative stability in public opinion on abortion over the past 30 years,” said Cowan. And this can extend to policy, too: When it comes to voting on restrictive measures, anti-choice people who have not heard nuanced stories of those who choose abortion may not realize the potential impact of their votes on their loved ones’ health and lives.
But what can we do about this? Talking about abortion openly is one option, both for those who have had them and those who support having them. When we are open about our advocacy for those with stigmatized reproductive experiences, activists say, people are more likely to trust us and share their experiences.
“Sharing that you support people who’ve had abortions is one way to bring people who’ve had abortions out of isolation and into connection with each other,” explained Sea Change Program’s Deputy Director Steph Herold in an interview with RH Reality Check. “Bringing people who have a shared experience together is a critical first step in decreasing stigma.”
We must, too, respect those who trust us with their stories, regardless of the religious or political backgrounds of everyone involved in the discussion. For example, in partnership with the Sea Change Program, I developed a model of listening to those who have had an abortion called Stop, Drop, and Listen. When someone begins to tell you about their abortion experience, you should stop talking to ensure that you don’t interrupt this deeply personal moment, drop your judgments and assumptions about their experience, then listen actively and ask open-ended questions to center their needs.
Seven in ten Americans support the right to an abortion; we must be open and vocal about those pro-choice values, so that people know that they can talk to us about their experiences. The more we are open about our unconditional love and compassion, regardless of someone’s pregnancy outcome, the more supported they will feel. Each time someone has a positive abortion story sharing experience, they will be able to speak out more and more. Eventually, they’ll hopefully feel comfortable sharing their stories with anti-choice people, who will then have to reconcile their misinformation with real-life experiences. And in turn, this will combat the abortion stigma that manifests itself in our personal, state, and national policies.
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