I’m pro-choice and still perpetuate abortion stigma

How working at MSI challenged my beliefs about abortion

Samhita Rao
Jan 10 · 4 min read

It’s hard to care about abortion until you or someone you love, needs one. At least that’s how it was for me.

A few months ago, I was getting dinner at a restaurant where my best friend worked. As I was leaving, she cautiously approached me and told me we needed to talk.

“I got an abortion yesterday,” she said.

I was stunned.

At that moment, I realized I had no idea how to respond. I had been working at MSI US for almost a year and had written dozens of stories about battling abortion stigma and being pro-choice. So naturally, I was shocked that I didn’t know how to talk to my best friend about her abortion. Was I supposed to congratulate her? Or was I supposed to express sympathy? I knew that 1 in 4 pregnancies worldwide end in abortion, but those numbers did not impact me very much before this. I was shocked that my successful, driven best friend would be part of that statistic.

This situation made me realize that being vehemently pro-choice does not make you immune to perpetuating abortion stigma.

Much to my dismay, I realized that I still believed many myths and misconceptions about abortion that I had been trying to dismantle through my work at MSI US. I was ashamed of myself.

Photo by T. Chick McClure on Unsplash

The next morning, I showed up to work with a new purpose. I had spent the past 9 months educating others on abortion stigma and how to combat it. Now, I knew that I needed to turn the lens inwards. I needed to identify and combat the myths I still believed about abortions and the women who get them. I started sifting through stories about MSI clients around the world. And I found one that really stuck with me.

Naomi Mwanza was 18 when she tried to induce an abortion herself on three separate occasions. It failed all three times. Naomi lives in rural Zambia, and her options were limited: the law states that women seeking an abortion must obtain three doctors’ signatures, despite the country having only 1,500 doctors among a population of 16.2 million people.

Eventually, Naomi decided she would visit a traditional herbalist whom she had heard could help girls with unwanted pregnancies. This time, it worked. Alone with her decision, Naomi confided in a close friend. However, the issue of abortion is so stigmatized in Zambia that the friend immediately told the police what she had done. That night when Naomi was sleeping, her neighbors woke her up with torches. She was taken to the police station.

Naomi was sentenced to two years in prison.

Naomi’s story reminded me that women around the world are risking their lives and reputations to gain control of their futures.

There’s no one kind of person who needs a safe abortion, and every pregnant person gets an abortion for a different reason.

Unfortunately, Naomi’s story also reminded me that when governments pass unnecessary and strict regulations on abortion, it only pushes women to resort to unsafe methods. And that’s not just in Zambia, but also in my home state of Louisiana.

As a Baton Rouge native, I always knew that if I needed an abortion, I would have to drive 4.5 hours to Houston to get one. I would also have to hide it from my parents and find a way to pay for it. Abortion was so inaccessible to me growing up that I knew it would never be an option for me. I would either suffer the consequences of an unexpected pregnancy or resort to unsafe methods.

Unfortunately, that’s still the case for most women in Louisiana. In fact, abortion rights in my home state have been quickly deteriorating. Depending on the Supreme Court’s verdict on June Medical Services v. Gee this year, Louisiana could become the first state in the country to not have legal abortion access.

My best friend was lucky in that she was able to access a safe abortion so easily. For Naomi and my friends in Baton Rouge, the reality of abortion care is very different. That’s why I’m so proud to play an active role in the reproductive rights movement. Our work has never been so crucial.

To Naomi, my Baton Rouge friends and women around the world struggling to access a safe abortion: thank you for letting me advocate on your behalf. Sharing your stories not only helped others understand the importance of abortion access but helped me confront the abortion stigma that I was unconsciously perpetuating.

Next week, I start working as a policy researcher for Center for Health and Gender Equity, where I will continue the legal fight for our rights. It has been such an honor to work for a persistent, open-minded organization like MSI US, and I will always cherish my time here.

Signing off,

Samhita Rao

Her Future

Stories from MSI about women's determination to access…

Samhita Rao

Written by

Let’s talk about abortion, neo-imperialism and the brown girl experience.

Her Future

Stories from MSI about women's determination to access family planning and safe abortion care.

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