Not as taboo as you think

Barbara Ann Lutrell

Abortion. A word that is rarely uttered in polite spaces. You can’t talk about it at work. You may even be uncomfortable discussing it with friends. You certainly wouldn’t bring it up in front of your in-laws.

But why is that? It’s nothing new. Abortion is an ancient practice, dating back thousands of years. It was legal in the United States up until the 1880s, and has been legal in our time for more than 45 years. It’s not uncommon. One in four women will have an abortion in her lifetime. It’s not dangerous. In fact, abortion is among the safest medical procedures out there — statistically safer than having your wisdom teeth removed.

The truth is, abortion is a very normal, common, safe, legal, and effective medical procedure. And yet, it remains one of the most taboo topics in this country. I can think of no other issue that affects 25 percent of women directly that is still shrouded in such silence and shame.  

The reason is clear: stigma. Abortion has been stigmatized so effectively, especially in the Southeast, that even those of us who consider ourselves progressive on the issue are contributing to it. 

Several years ago, a good friend shared with me that she’d had an abortion months prior. Being the enlightened, “pro-choice” person that I was, I was surprised she hadn’t told me sooner. Why would she keep this from me? I’m so clearly supportive. I told her that she could have “come to me for help” and I would have “been there for her.” My friend seemed completely unimpressed with my retrospective offer — and rightfully so. Because she didn’t need my help. She didn’t need me to be there for her. She made an informed decision about what was best for her body and her future, and she went to a doctor’s office to have a safe, legal medical procedure. That was it. She hadn’t consulted me about her other medical decisions. Why would I assume she would need to come to me for this one? Because I fell into the same tired trap that many of us do: the belief that when someone gets an abortion, they must feel some level of guilt, regret, or doubt.  

People’s lives are complicated, and decisions about whether to start a family, pursue adoption, or terminate a pregnancy are personal and very complex. But that doesn’t mean they’re difficult. Eighty-seven percent of people who have had an abortion are in their 20s or 30s, and most already have at least one child. Research shows that the most common feeling after having an abortion is relief. People are perfectly capable of making the decision that is best for their lives and their futures without well-meaning (and condescending) sympathy from those around them.

Of course not all people make the decision to have their abortion alone. Some people seek much-needed support from friends and family. And their experience is just as valid and authentic as my friend’s was. There is no one-size-fits-all abortion story. Which is exactly why we must stop projecting our own assumptions about abortion, often colored by shame and stigma, onto other people. We have to start conversations about abortions — not debates. Because ultimately, opinions about abortion are complicated — for some it’s based on faith, for others it’s based on science. But the bottom line is this: You can never know what another person is going through, and you cannot make that decision for someone else. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the halls of our state capitol, it’s that politicians definitely aren’t the experts. 

Often, we look to people who have had abortions to share their stories. But the responsibility to start these conversations should not fall solely on them. We cannot expect people to subject themselves to the court of public opinion, recounting their most personal, private medical decisions with the world. If we are going to shift this culture of silence, and make real, meaningful change, it will require all of us to start conversations. 

The other week, my cousin opened up a conversation with her father about abortion and the recent legislative attacks that we’ve seen sweep the country. My uncle is relatively detached from the subject of abortion because he has the luxury to be. As the conversation progressed, it became clear that he did not know the extent to which abortion access had been legislated this year. He did not know that in his own home state of Alabama, lawmakers voted to outlaw abortion altogether — leaving no exceptions for rape or incest. “Had he been living under a rock?” my cousin thought. Ultimately, yes, he is shielded by his own privilege, and he is not alone. There are a million other conversations just like this one that need to be had if we are going to begin reducing abortion stigma. 

And believe me — I know it’s not your responsibility to help educate the willfully ignorant, but it is one of the most meaningful acts of resistance at your disposal. So if you have an abortion story you feel safe and ready to share, share it — even if it’s just with your closest friends. If you have an opportunity to dispel some of the myths and misinformation surrounding abortion, do it — even if it makes you uncomfortable. If you have a platform from which you can proclaim your support for safe, legal abortion, share it — even if it seems unpopular. People’s reactions might just surprise you. 

Seventy-seven percent of Americans agree that Roe v. Wade should be upheld. That includes a majority of Republicans and Independents. Even a majority of Trump voters believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances. And millions of people across the country know firsthand just how important that constitutional right is, whether they admit it or not. 

Abortion is not as taboo as you think. So be brave and start a conversation, no matter how small. Most of us agree that abortion should remain safe and legal, but that does us no good if we never speak up. A silent majority never gets heard.

Barbara Ann Luttrell serves as the vice president of External Affairs at Planned Parenthood Southeast, where she’s on the frontlines in the fight for reproductive health rights in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. The views in this column are her own, forged from the insight and knowledge she gains everyday, whether in the office or in the streets

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