Media coverage has a history of shaping public opinion on social, political, economical and cultural issues, and abortion coverage is no exception. While laws around it have changed, the derogatory coverage hasn’t as most representations in television, cinema, magazines, articles, etc. are directly related to the stigma around abortion. The politics of reproduction, bodily autonomy, and culture-specific constructions of motherhood/femininity are reflected in such representations, with integrated stigmatisation.
Over the years, Indian cinema and television have largely contributed to its stigmatisation. The language used to construct abortion in films and TV programmes mostly fluctuate between framing it as an individual problem and a social failing. The idea of an individual opting for abortion is often conveyed through associations with discredited practices, which speaks to reflect a sense of moral panic, rather than locating it in a positively-framed spectrum of women’s reproductive practices or life choices. It is useful to consider the social dualism and the ways in which these representations construct abortion seekers as a distinct group, somehow different to ‘normal.’
The specific provocative terms in which abortions seekers are described in entertainment industry usually frame them as irresponsible, immoral, incapable of looking after themselves, or of managing their own sexuality, selfish for career-orientations and as not behaving respectably reducing their image to pathetic or distressed. Similarly to the health contexts, news media discourse around abortion positions an abortion-seeker in a complex way, as to be vulnerably distressed, and physically unwell or in need of protection; sympathy is most evident in the language which directs to the point as if women do not want it. A physiological justification for abortions appear remarkably more acceptable in media discourse than one grounded in mental health, reproductive choices or social freedom, be it news, television or films.
The men who co-conceived the pregnancies being aborted are rarely featured in news reports. Only a few reports address this absence, particularly around questions of responsibility that too in extreme cases as those of rape victims seeking abortion, etc. However, Indian television and cinema has time and again glorified the normative attitude that girls “get into trouble”, while boys have “healthy urges” they can’t control. A few examples of such daily-soaps and movies that glorified this norm are Kya Kehna, Jaani Dushman, Salaam Namastey, Kasauti Zindagi Ki, Hitler Didi, Tere Sang, etc.
Abortion coverage highlights the socially justified reasons such as complicated pregnancies or abnormalities rather than stating it as an individual choice which is again a byproduct of extreme moral subjugations, where the testimonies of actual abortion seekers receive little or no mention in articles covering these issues. So, addressing the accounts of abortion seekers and their lived experience take a back seat to the normalised conventional claims and moral policing.
In Hindi cinema and TV serials, associations with controversies, norms of motherhood/femininity and morality mark abortion and people who seek abortions out of choice, as immoral. What are typically seen as “undesirable characteristics” for women, namely career-orientation or not wanting to have babies: these stereotypes may often result in distancing of abortion seekers from the rest of society on toxic “moral” grounds which is typical of the process of stigmatisation.
The extreme tone of moral policing in media representation depicts abortion as incompatible with the values of family, femininity and motherhood and also connects it to the reproductive norms of family planning and suitable forms of childbearing. This stigmatisation stems from the narrative that women are apparently unable to control their sexuality within strict guidelines. Media or popular narratives of what forms an acceptable setting for pregnancies further denigrates women who act in a way which does not suit the normative femininity.
Although some of the western media has shown significant improvement in its sensitivity towards the subject of abortion and reproductive choices of women in the past few years, personal testimonies in some reports suggest that women are expected to be disparaged for seeking abortion.
For example, phrases such as “Obviously I’m not proud of what I’ve done and I know people will judge me” (The Sun, November 10, 2010) serve to normalise the moral policing on the subject of abortion, thus focusing on negative emotions like guilt, disgust, trauma and shame. It’s difficult to say if this is an example of internalised misogyny among women who have had abortions or a deliberate selection of women who have had particularly terrible experiences. However, it is possible, that women giving accounts of abortion may be affected by social desirability bias and feel compelled to talk in negative terms, expressing sentiments of “shame,” “heartbreak,” and “regret.”
Moreover, women may talk about abortion as a terrible decision which no woman might need to ought to make, and as the most difficult decision because the dominant norms in our society demand that response. Independent reasons for seeking abortion are sometimes considered irrelevant because the process is assumed to be so traumatic that it appears to outweigh any justification in its favour, and it is always seen as a hard choice to make.
Such negative representations under the buttress of moral policing paint abortion statistics as a profoundly depressing effect of modernisation and undermine the empowerment women have fought long and hard for in the context of reproductive choices. Hence, the tone ‘flying in the face of morality’ serves as a political and moral hot-button to illustrate the cultural divisiveness in the response towards abortion.
Nayla Khwaja is a freelance journalist and a SAFE Fellow (Media) at The YP Foundation, New Delhi. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.