Understanding Abortion Stigma and Shame

Stigma and shame can affect pregnant persons seeking abortion care and their ability to seek and receive support. Abortion stigma can be described as “a negative attribute ascribed to women who seek to terminate a pregnancy that marks them, internally or externally, as inferior to ideals of womanhood.” The experience of stigma can depend on individual characteristics, such as religious beliefs, cultural values, and economic status. Support from close social networks can help mediate the effects of abortion stigma.1 In a paper published in Women’s Health Issues in 2011, the authors theorize that abortion is stigmatized because:

  • It violates “feminine ideals” of womanhood,
  • Technological advancements have facilitated personification of the fetus,
  • Legal restrictions reinforce the notion that abortion is morally wrong,
  • Abortion is viewed as dirty or unhealthy, and
  • Anti-abortion forces have found stigma a powerful tool.2

Recent research suggests that two out of three pregnant persons who have abortions anticipate stigma if others were to learn about it. In a large national survey, 58% of pregnant persons felt they needed to keep their abortion secret from friends and family and 17% believed their regular healthcare provider would treat them differently if they knew about the abortion. These findings draw attention to the ways in which stigma may interfere with and delay an individual's decision making about abortion.3 Additional studies suggest that those with private insurance may choose to pay out of pocket to avoid stigma  or choose self-induced abortion to keep their termination secret.4,5 

Stigma arises from many places, including from among those who support access to abortion services. One source of stigma comes from the sense that some abortions are more acceptable than others, including those involving fetal abnormalities, abortions for very young persons, or an abortion following sexual assault. Individuals with different circumstances may feel additional stigma and judgment for their decision.

Experiences at a clinic when seeking abortion can also reinforce a sense of stigma; in a recent study, indivduals seeking abortion reported the presence of protestors at clinics as negative or traumatic, with one patient traveling far from home to visit a clinic without protestors. The same study also found that the elaborate security measures in some freestanding abortion clinics can increase feelings of shame, secrecy and isolation.6 Findings from another study suggested that protestors do not cause individuals to have negative feelings about their abortions, but that interacting with protesters can be upsetting at the time of the visit.7