by Terry Bellamak
Last weekend Stuff published an excellent article on abortion stigma. If you haven’t read Michelle Duff’s piece yet, go read it – very insightful and full of good historical information.
It’s also timely, coming a week after pro-choice locals and ALRANZ supporters in Thames took back the corner near the hospital where for years radical anti-choice busybodies have been harassing patients accessing the Thames abortion service. The Thames community had grown used to gritting their teeth and pretending not to see them. They seemed relieved to see us on the corner instead.
A study from 2013 showed how effective anti-choice protesters outside clinics are at getting patients to change their minds about abortion: not effective at all. It showed patients may have found the protesters upsetting, but patients’ reasons for getting an abortion were so compelling that nothing the protesters said could have changed their minds. Some anti-choicers acknowledge this fact themselves.
Another study from 2015 shows patients trying to access abortion find protesters intrusive and intimidating even when they stand silently. It isn’t hard to see why. Most people who access abortion in Aotearoa New Zealand have been raised as women in Western culture, so they are all too familiar with street harassment. How did you feel the last time you walked by the local dairy and the guys on the corner silently watched you walk on by? Did you feel judged? Annoyed? Threatened? How is it any different if they are older and carrying gory signs?
I find it impossible to credit the idea that the anti-choice busybodies with gory signs aren’t fully aware that their presence makes patients feel unsafe. That’s why they are there. Their presence, their judgmental silence, their scaremongering signs, may be the only punishment a patient having an abortion ever experiences.
Punishing women for behaving like the sexual beings they are is crucial to the perpetuation of abortion stigma. Abortion stigma, the vague sense that someone getting an abortion is doing something wrong, is the only weapon in the anti-choicers’ arsenal. Apart from real weapons, of course. Once you reject abortion stigma, there is no viable argument against abortion.
Abortion stigma keeps women silent about their abortions, but more and more women are owning their choices without fear. As time goes on, the circle of people unafraid to talk about their abortions grows, and the reach of abortion stigma shrinks.
Anti-choicers can never let go of abortion stigma. It’s all they’ve got.