Why Black Women Still Struggle with the Stigma of Abortion

by Altheria Gaston

Abortion is a polarizing issue in the U.S. The fighting between those in pro-choice and pro-life camps is nothing new. But encouraging women to proudly reveal on social media that they’ve had abortions is somewhat a novel idea. This is exactly what Lindy West promoted on September 19th when she tweeted the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.

In an article in The Guardian, Lindy West explains how and why she began the movement: “The fact that even progressive, outspoken, pro-choice feminists feel the pressure to keep our abortions under wraps – to speak about them only in corners, in murmurs, in private with our closest confidantes – means that opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best.” In essence, West believes that by openly acknowledging their abortions, women are stripping anti-abortion proponents (anti-choicers) of the power to shame women who have had abortions.

In the days following West’s tweet, many women shouted their abortions, highlighting the many experiences they had had with abortions, including the reasons they sought abortions as well as the emotional impact this decision had on their lives. A Shout Your Abortion Facebook page was created to provide a space for women to tell how their lives have been impacted because they were able to obtain a safe and legal abortion. I think it is worth examining how the ability to #ShoutYourAbortion is a license that many Black women are not granted. Even West acknowledged that her ability to speak out about her abortion is indeed a privilege.

We know that all women are subject to abortion stigma, but Black women’s abortion stigma is compounded by misogynoir. Misogynoir is a term used to describe the particular racialized sexism that Black women face. Misogynoir captures the unique oppression Black women experience not just as a result of sexism, but as a result of sexism that is tinted by our Blackness. The jezebel stereotype has been attached to Black women for centuries. (Think Shug Avery in The Color Purple.) Taylor Gordon, in “10 Horrifying Facts About The Sexual Exploitation of Enslaved Black Women You May Not Know,” describes the sexual exploitation of slave women, “A certain group of enslaved women were deemed ‘Jezebels’ by their owners. These women were assumed to be even more promiscuous than the other enslaved Black women and were often subjected to sexual abuse multiple times throughout the day. While white men forced these ‘Jezebels’ to have sex with them, they insisted that it was the enslaved woman’s fault for being so promiscuous.” Also, Deborah Gray-White explains that during the early 1900’s, in the decades following the ending of U.S. slavery, leading Black women believed that moral purity and chastity would redefine Black womanhood. Such respectability has carried through to the present and helps explain the stigma for Black women.

It can be argued that #ShoutYourAbortion is a clear defiance of such respectability politics—that Black women do not have to conform to mainstream values (whatever those are) in order to be worthy of respect and womanhood. Although there may be a certain level of “respectability” in warning Black women about the dangers of shouting their abortions, it is worth noting that no appraisal is being made of the Black woman’s morality because of her decision to have an abortion. This article is not about trying to make her appear more socially acceptable. Rather, this is a caveat that Black women and women who are poor may face different consequences for shouting their abortion than white and affluent women.

As A. Moore described, Black women can’t get away with the things white women can, especially when it comes to sexuality. Since we already know that we are not allowed the same grace as white women, we must think twice before joining movements like #ShoutYourAbortion that are likely to bring biased judgments on Black women. The repercussions of our shouting may cost us more than it does others.

Simply stated, just like many women don’t publicize health-related decisions on social media, they shouldn’t feel compelled to share their decision to have this medical procedure with millions of Twitter users. Women have the autonomy to be as discreet as they want or need to be when it comes to their reproductive decisions. When women choose not to shout their abortion, it is not always because they feel that they have committed an immoral act; it may be simply because they value their privacy. Further, regardless of whether they deem abortions as moral or immoral, for many women, their decision to terminate a pregnancy was not an easy decision—certainly one not to broadcast on social media.

Just as Linda West and others feel powerful when they shout their abortions, other women feel just as powerful when they exercise their right to keep their reproductive decisions private. For some women, namely Black women and other women of color, revealing their abortions can have very real consequences and they have no responsibility to subject themselves to them.

Photo: Shutterstock

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. You can find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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