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How to Talk About Abortion (And Get It Right)

22/02/2016 17:48 | Updated 22 February 2017

You know someone who has had an abortion. We all do. Friends, family members, colleagues, and even our much loved celebrities - people who have had an abortion are everywhere. In fact, one in three women in the UK and the US will have an abortion in her lifetime with similar rates seen across the globe, yet that statistic will likely come as a surprise to many people. Why? Because we don't talk about abortion. We shy away from the topic because it is taboo, stigmatized and shrouded in secrecy, creating the illusion that abortion isn't a common, everyday occurrence. When we do talk about it, we can find ourselves at a loss for how to tackle it respectfully, accurately, and without perpetuating stigma.

That's why in 2015 it was a welcome change when #shoutyourabortion trended on twitter and gained instant traction on social media. Started in the U.S. by pro-choice activists Lindy West, Amelia Bonow, and Kimberly Morrison, the hashtag turned into a global campaign with women everywhere seizing the opportunity to break free of the usual rules that tell women to keep quiet about their abortion. As well as the #shoutyourabortion phenomenon, 2015 was also a year in which we saw some of our favourite TV dramas introduce abortion storylines without the usual hysteria or dramatic change of heart that is usually written-in. At the end of the year, Scandal's season finale was hailed as being a refreshingly realistic depiction of an abortion, a real rarity in mainstream television and film.

But even when some media coverage on abortion tries to be balanced and objective, the language and images used can be - either intentionally or unintentionally - loaded with judgement, stigma and misconceptions. In a recent issue of Newsweek examining the state of abortion in the US, the cover featured a computer-enhanced image of foetus - both misrepresenting the reality of what a foetus looks like when an abortion is most likely to occur (before 12 weeks gestation) and taking the reader's focus away from the pregnant person - those most affected by the subject of the article. So the challenge lies not just with getting people to talk about abortion in normal, everyday conversation, but also in how to change the way we talk about abortion to not perpetuate the stigma, misinformation and misconceptions surrounding it.

In other fields significant attention has been paid to the language, images and terminology used which can lead to stigma, for example with regards to issues such as mental health, LGBTI, and HIV. However, the language and images we use when we discuss abortion are yet to receive such focused attention. We have internalized common terms and phrases that perpetuate the harmful stigmatization of women who have an abortion. From value-laden phrases like "Get rid of it" implying that abortion is a flippant action taken without thought or feeling, to inaccurate references to pregnant women as mothers regardless of whether or not they have or want to have children, to misnomers that deny the reality of most abortions, such as images of distraught-looking women, abortion stigma is commonplace in the media and in our everyday conversations..

You might think this is just irrelevant squabbling over semantics. However, the language and images we use when talking about abortion are important because they can convey both hidden and explicit messages. They can feed directly into the misconceptions and stigmatization of abortion, which in turn has a very real impact on the health and well-being of women. The more we tell women they are mothers before they have chosen if and when they want to be mothers, the more we perpetuate gender roles that are harmful to gender equality. The more we focus on the foetus, the less we consider the pregnant woman, her needs and her human right to bodily autonomy. The more we use judgemental language the less likely women will be to turn to her friends and family to talk about her abortion, removing her from vital support networks. And the less we talk about abortion, the harder we make it for women to get the information and services they need to end an unwanted pregnancy safely.

In 2016, we need to continue to talk about abortion, shout our abortions, and engage in measured, fact-based dialogue with those who we disagree with on the subject. However, as equally important is that we hold these conversations using rights-based, stigma free language and imagery that represents the reality of abortion - a common, necessary, and responsible choice for millions of women.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation has recently published a comprehensive guide to using rights-based, stigma-free communication on abortion. You can access 'How to talk about abortion: A guide to rights-based messaging' at http://www.ippf.org/sites/default/files/web-ippf_abortion_messaging_guide.pdf.