Posted by Priyanshi Prasad
It is no secret that abortion entails substantial stigma. The pervasive and far-reaching misconceptions and myths surrounding it paint a picture that is starkly different from what abortion is really like. This stigma has a plethora of widespread consequences for individuals seeking abortions. This translates into shame and silence for individuals seeking abortions, which then becomes a breeding ground for further misinformation to spread. Therefore, to address abortion stigma, it becomes vital for us to encourage honest and open conversations about it.
To understand just how Herculean a task acquiring an abortion becomes due to social stigma, we talked to two individuals who had abortions under widely different circumstances, yet had their abortion journeys underlined by similar themes — fear of judgment, incorrect preconceived notions of abortion and its consequences.
Many who need or want an abortion may fear judgement from others in their lives — be it their friends, family, or even partners. Such was the experience of Riya* who is currently in her early twenties and had a medical abortion last year. As she recounted her abortion story, she pointed out that her initial thoughts after deciding to get an abortion concerned her anxiety over how the people in her life would react.
“When I first found out I was pregnant, I totally freaked out. I knew I had to get an abortion but I felt like I couldn’t even talk to people close to me about it because I felt so much shame. Since it was a casual sex encounter, I was afraid people would judge me for being sexually active. I really felt like I could turn to no one. My partner was someone I did not know very well so I felt really anxious for days leading up to me telling him. I thought he would freak out and not want anything to do with me but he was really supportive throughout.”
Riya*’s experience parallels that of many individuals who, while seeking an abortion, were scared of harsh judgement they may face by others. These judgements are often based on the lack of correct knowledge about abortion. Such misinformation is fuelled by the discreet manner in which we are taught to approach the subject of abortion.
Moreover, single or unmarried people may find it increasingly difficult to access abortion due to the taboos that surround sexual activity before marriage. As evidenced by Riya*’s experience, these individuals may be afraid of judgement from family, friends, and healthcare professionals they may encounter while accessing abortion. Nonetheless, the fear of judgement from others is not exclusive to unmarried individuals. Such is understood by Sara*’s narration of her abortion. Sara* is a married individual, in her late- thirties. She had an abortion in her mid-thirties, which was a year after she carried out a successful pregnancy. Due to a medical complication, she was recommended a surgical abortion.
“I found out pretty early into my pregnancy that I should have an abortion. I was on a certain medication that would have made it risky for me to carry full-term. On top of that, I had recovered from PPD (Postpartum depression) a few months prior but the idea of a new baby after a very hectic year was too much for me. Even though I knew abortion was a good idea, I told no one but my mother and my husband. I just didn’t want anyone else to know about it. I was scared of what my in-laws or my own family would say so it was just better to stay quiet and get it done. Also, I just didn’t want to add to the stress of getting the abortion.”
As acknowledged above, a lot of stigma surrounding abortion spawns from widespread myths about it. One such myth states that abortions are ‘dangerous’ despite them being ‘one of the safest medical procedures out there’ according to Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit organization that provides reproductive health care in the United States and globally. Many people also falsely believe that undergoing an abortion procedure carries long-term consequences which is simply not true. However, such misinformation is rampant as indicated by Riya*’s account of her abortion journey.
“My second thought was — how will I get an abortion? I didn’t know anything about abortions. Surgery was the only one I was familiar with and just the word ‘surgery’ made me think it was going to be painful and unsafe, like a big operation of some kind. I thought, what if something goes wrong? But, once I read up about it, I realised that it’s very safe and common. Plus, I discovered that medical abortions also existed. Even with medication that is meant to literally terminate your pregnancy, your body doesn’t change. I opted for a medical abortion mainly because I thought it was best suited for me but also because my access to it was quite easy. A relative of mine who is an obstetrician-gynecologist was able to help me through my abortion. A few days were all it took, which includes the time it took for the cramping to go away. After that, my body was back to normal. I was surprised at how quick it was. It was painful but completely worth it. No doubt.”
Additionally, the common myth that all individuals that have abortions experience regret for doing so, after the fact, is utterly false. It is harmful to paint the experiences of all who get abortions with the same brush. In fact, a landmark UC San Francisco study found that five years after having an abortion, over 95 percent of the women in the study felt that it was the right decision for them. While there may be some individuals that feel regretful, most feel positive and certain about the decision they made.
“I’m very happy I didn’t go ahead with my pregnancy. No, I don’t regret it at all. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything by risking that pregnancy, either.” says Sara*
When asked whether she regrets her abortion, Riya* said, “Oh my God, not at all. I’m a full-time student and I have no desire to have a baby anytime soon. I could never regret it.”
Furthermore, misconceptions such as the belief that abortion can have an impact on fertility in the long-term can prevent individuals from seeking abortion upon the fear that their fertility may be diminished as a result. There is no evidence that supports this falsehood. Individuals who have had abortions can carry out healthy pregnancies afterward. Sara*, who had to get an abortion because of a medical complication, became pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby just two years after.
Of her experience with getting pregnant after an abortion, Sara* says, “I was in a much better place when I got pregnant a couple of years after my abortion. I was scared something might go wrong again but I was blessed to carry out a pregnancy without any complications. Now, I have two happy and healthy kids. Even though, at the time, terminating my pregnancy was a very sad and tough decision for me, I’m very happy with how everything turned out.”
* – Names of the respondents have been changed to protect identity.
This article is the first in a series in which Rangeen Khidki writes for Feminism In India on how menstruators are not allowed control and autonomy over their body, recognising the same as violence and violation of human rights under the 2021 theme of 16 Days Of Activism, which is Gender Based Violence.
Note: All individuals who have been referred to in this article had safe abortions. Safe abortions must be conducted by registered medical practitioners.
Priyanshi Prasad is a first-year student in Ashoka University, planning to major in Economics. She is passionate about learning and writing about Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in India. A voracious reader and caffeine enthusiast, she spends most of her days walking her dog Argo and listening to the latest true crime podcast. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.
Featured image source: CRR