How Your Organization Can Build Resilience to Abortion Stigma

by Steph Herold, Managing Director of the Sea Change Program

Organizations that work in abortion care and abortion rights operate under constant scrutiny — from the state, from the anti-abortion movement , and even from pro-choice advocates. It’s infuriating yet also tragically predictable that politicians and anti-abortion advocates use tactics to stigmatize abortion to get them closer to their goal of re-criminalizing the procedure. Less predictable but just as insidious, their control of the narrative also creates a trap for those who support abortion care and rights. It’s a trap that leads us into stigmatizing ourselves or our colleagues precisely as we’re voicing our support — and sometimes we step in it. So how can organizations respond when we see our own allies unintentionally stigmatizing abortion, or realize we’re doing it ourselves?

As Kate pointed out, we’ve all accidentally stigmatized abortion at one point or another — it’s natural when you live in a culture that stigmatizes abortion to want to distance yourself from that stigma, even if in one conversation with your fundamentalist aunt or a stranger on an airplane. Yet we need to develop personal and organizational resilience to stigma if we want to intervene in this cycle and make long-term wins. And we can do that by firmly articulating our organizational values, actions, and behaviors that commit us to fighting stigma. That might look something like this:

Understanding how abortion stigma works and who it impacts. Most people have a vague sense of what abortion stigma is, but until we articulate a specific definition and understand its complexities, it’s hard to pinpoint how to change it. At Sea Change, we define abortion stigma as a shared understanding that abortion is considered socially and/or morally unacceptable. Abortion stigma also infiltrates every level of culture — public discourse, media like TV and movies, public policy, institutions like hospitals and schools, communities, relationships between people, and is even internalized by individuals with abortion experiences. Pinpointing these different levels helps us think about what strategies might be most effective in mitigating stigma in these different environments.

Abortion stigma is an intersectional issue — that is, how people experience the stigma associated with abortion depends on who they are, where they live, and how they identify. One study found, for example, that compared to non-religious women, Catholic women who’ve had abortions are more worried about community condemnation, and Protestant women who’ve had abortions are more worried about judgment from friends and family members. There’s still a lot of work to be done to understand how the experience of abortion stigma varies by race, class, ethnicity, education, and other factors, and how the multiple levels of stigma (media, policy, institutions, etc.) affect those experiences.

Talking about all of these complexities shows that your organization has taken the time to understand the complex ecosystem of abortion stigma, and is invested in contributing to our growing understanding of abortion stigma so we can fight it together.

Finding opportunities to build resilience to stigma. Abortion stigma is all around us — it permeates every aspect of culture. Yet that also means that there are infinite opportunities to address it, and that everyone can have a role in reducing stigma. Each person in your organization can develop resilience to stigma by engaging in stigma-reducing behaviors that they’re comfortable with, on their own terms.

Why not train staff in how to answer the, “so, what do you do for a living?” question they might get while on an airplane? Why not have a staff meeting about how everyone handles conversations about abortion over their Thanksgiving table? What about creating best practices for staff on drafting talking points that reaffirm abortion as a normal part of people’s lives? There’s a role for every person in your organization in reducing abortion stigma in their personal and professional lives — from your volunteers, administrative staff, clinicians, program managers, policy directors, communications associates, CEOs, and everyone in between.

Supporting and recognizing positive efforts for change. Sometimes it’s hard to see the bright lights of culture change in today’s severely anti-abortion climate. But they’re there! In the last three years, we’ve seen at least three movies centering the stories of abortion providers and people who’ve had abortions (After Tiller, Obvious Child, and Grandma). There are more organizations than ever who are committed to tackling abortion stigma and even networks like inroads that are committed to bringing all of these organizations and advocates together to have a bigger impact. Every day, people are sharing their abortion stories, whether with a friend, in mainstream media, or on social media via #shoutyourabortion. Promoting these efforts can animate and excite your base and your staff. It gives people hope — when the policy landscape looks bleak, turn to culture for some inspiration.

Calling in behaviors from allies that unintentionally stigmatize. It’s natural to want to call out publicly the behavior of organizations in the field whom you feel are setting us back instead of leading with a pro-active vision. I’ve done it many times, both on twitter and in writing. Yet if you know someone at that organization, this kind of public call-out can actually damage your relationship with them and make them less likely to be interested in hearing you out. We’re fond of a practice known as “calling in,” which is when you privately talk to an ally, with love and respect, about how their behavior or action actually hurts instead of helps your cause.

We know that the majority of people in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement don’t want to stigmatize abortion. They’re good people trying to do good in the world, just like we are. If they do something that stigmatizes abortion, let them know in a way that doesn’t imply that they are a bad person with bad intentions. Help them see the impact of their actions and also how they can do it differently next time. And do this in a private email, or face to face — publicly embarrassing a colleague might make them defensive, which usually does not lead to productive conversations or behavior change.

Calling out intentional stigma from bad actors. Of course, there are people, organizations, and movements out there trying to stigmatize abortion. And they deserve a good call-out — whether on social media or through organized petitions and campaigns. Launching a campaign that targets a specific TV network, school, hospital, and/or community leader shows that your organization is dedicated to holding people with power accountable for their words and actions, especially when they hurt marginalized groups like people who have abortions or abortion providers. Keep in mind that a public call-out is a great tool when you have less power and fewer resources than the person or organization you’re calling out.

These are just a few suggestions and general guiding principles. With time for reflection about your own understanding of stigma and your organization’s theory of change, you will undoubtedly come up with more ideas that work for your context. When we work toward a common purpose with generosity and thoughtfulness, we are more resilient as a movement and better-equipped to roll with the punches and change the world around us.