On Stigma and How to Make Abortion Scarce and Unsafe in the U.S.

This week, Indiana saw several developments that could help or hurt women’s ability to access the medical care they need when they need it, especially if what they need is an abortion.

On Tuesday, a federal court fixed a time for its evaluation of the constitutionality of Indiana Senate Bill 371 (SB371). And on Wednesday, another bill—Indiana Senate Bill 292 (SB292) was debated in the Senate health committee.

SB371 seeks to limit access to abortion by stigmatizing comprehensive reproductive health clinics as “abortion clinics,” while SB292 seeks to limit access to abortion by stigmatizing medical providers as “abortion doctors.”

At heart of both SB 371 and SB 292 is the notion that clinics and medical providers who provide abortions somehow are different and therefore merit calling out.

Yet, as the very public schism between Susan B. Komen and Planned Parenthood in 2012 made clear, abortion is just one of the health services a comprehensive clinic provides. In the case of Planned Parenthood, only 3 percent of the services provided nationwide are abortions. So if one were to name Planned Parenthood clinics after the services most frequently provided, it might be the “HIV and Cancer Prevention Clinics” or, appropriately, the “Planned Pregnancy Clinics.”

Likewise, defining a doctor or midwife who is willing to perform abortions (surgical or not) is equivalent to describing your most well-stocked local grocer as the “Gluten Free Bread Dealer.” Sure, it may be near impossible to obtain gluten-free bread in your neighborhood, and for most it won’t matter. But if you have celeriac disease, it is significant that someone is willing to take valuable shelf-space up with the one kind of bread you can eat without getting a stomach-ache.

But of course the point of Indiana’s bills is not to accurately describe what goes on in reproductive health clinics, or to dignify medical providers with descriptors that go to what they actually do. The point is to stigmatize abortions as bad, and the clinics and doctors who provide them as worse. The corollary of this thinking is that such “bad” clinics and people must be subject to more stringent government oversight. The ultimate objective is to make it very hard for anyone to provide or obtain a legal and safe abortion.

And it works. When Texas imposed more stringent rules on “abortion clinics” in 2013, at least a dozen clinics closed down. New restrictions allegedly proposed in Louisiana could take away any possibility for obtaining a legal and safe abortion in that state.  This week, Mikki Kendall recounted how Illinois laws allowing for the separation of service providers into those who do and those who don’t provide abortions almost cost her her life.

No one, however, should be under the misapprehension that making abortion less accessible will make it less prevalent. In countries where abortion is illegal, for example, women and girls who need to terminate their pregnancies still find ways to do so—usually unsafely. Researchers from the World Health Organization have called unsafe abortion “a preventable pandemic,” and estimates suggest that approximately 68,000 women per year die from complications caused by unsafe abortions. Yet abortion, when provided early in the pregnancy, is one of the safest medical procedures around, with less than 0.05 percent risk of complications needing hospital care.

In other words, it is not that abortion is an unsafe medical procedure. It is that laws limiting access to abortion—such as the laws debated in Indiana this week—make it unsafe. Instead of stigmatizing doctors who will provide abortions, we should stigmatize those who won’t.

headshotAbout the author: Marianne Mollmann is Director of Programs at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in New York City. Ms. Mollmann previously was a senior policy advisor with Amnesty International’s International Secretariat in London where she focused on freedom of expression and sexual rights issues, and a women’s rights researcher and advocate with Human Rights Watch in New York. Ms. Mollmann specializes in sexual rights, reproductive rights, women in conflict, economic rights, and anti-discrimination.

Categories: Politics

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