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Here's How We Can End Abortion Stigma

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On a daily basis, we turn to news to understand what is happening in the world. We rely on the news to give us factual, unbiased information, especially in an environment ripe with inaccuracies. The news sets the agenda for what issues people talk about and how we think about them. Journalists, anchors, editors, producers, and all media makers play an active role in shaping how politicians and the public understand issues like abortion.

Since abortion’s legalization, we’ve seen lawmakers chip away at our self-determination state by state, by withholding insurance coverage, instating mandatory ultrasounds, 20-week abortion bans, insulting and medically unnecessary waiting periods, and other disgraceful tactics to make abortion increasingly difficult to obtain. Those who access abortion are routinely shamed and harassed by family and politicians alike for accessing legal health care. And we stay attune to such policies and attempts to control access to reproductive health via the news. The media plays an increasingly important role in informing the public about these current events, yet we don’t have a good sense of how they may or may not contribute to misinformation or stigma around abortion. If the media is one of the main ways that people understand and engage in what’s going on in the world, we need to know what messages media is sending about abortion.

In our new report, “Shaping stigma: An analysis of mainstream print and online news coverage of abortion, 2014–2015," co-authored with the Berkeley Media Studies Group, we analyzed two years’ worth of news coverage (and over 3,000 articles) about abortion to pinpoint where and how abortion stigma manifests. Here’s what we found, and what you can do about it.

The news erases pregnant people.

Articles frequently humanized the fetus or embryo, not only reinforcing the moral debate of when life is created, but erasing the person actually experiencing the pregnancy. In over a third of the articles in our sample, language that personifies the fetus was also a contributor to insinuate that those who choose abortion and/or those who provide abortions were engaging in murder, killing, or other immoral behavior.

Abortion is erroneously framed as dangerous and unsafe.

Despite abortion being one of the safest medical procedures, more than one-tenth of articles framed abortion as dangerous, implicitly or explicitly evoking the idea that abortion is unsafe or risky for women’s health.

Abortion providers are discredited and stereotyped.

Statements that directly discredited providers by accusing them of using abortion to make money or referring to them as murderers or immoral appeared in 15 percent of articles. By commonly portraying abortion providers as dirty, greedy, or murderous, the news separated them from other health care providers. This was a common theme, particularly after the release of the smear campaign launched via video by the Center for Medical Progress.

Abortion is falsely described as psychologically harmful to women.

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While research indicates some women have mixed or negative feelings post-abortion, 90% report relief or other positive emotions following the procedure. Yet, we found that the majority of news coverage quoted anti-abortion figures that claimed that the emotional experience of abortion as exclusively negative. These articles left those quotes unchallenged, despite the plethora of rigorous scientific data that proves the opposite. This implies that guilt, shame and regret are universal responses to abortion.

Accurate public health information is rare.

Abortion is one of the most common medical procedures a woman can have, yet only one percent of news stories in our sample discussed it as a part of reproductive healthcare. For readers who do not have access to accurate information on the safety and commonality of abortion, the news should be a source to turn to. Yet, only two percent shared information on the safety of abortion. Even more egregious, the media representation of those who obtain abortions were that of childless, young white women. This is far from the reality that most women who have abortions are already mothers, are women of color, and are in their 20s-30s.

Personal accounts of abortion are nearly absent.

Our report found that individual stories about someone having an abortion were present in only 8 percent of the articles in our sample. In less than three percent of those articles did someone reveal their full name. Reporting on abortion without the narratives and lived experiences of those who experience it not only paints an incomplete picture of abortion, it adds to the perception that abortion is something not to be discussed in public. Of note, those who did share their abortion experiences in the news, they were almost all older white women affiliated with a national organization or a celebrity. The stories of women of color were completely absent, which is especially egregious given women of color make up the majority of women who have abortions.

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We deserve to have news that reflects the realties of our lives and tells the full, true story of abortion. Yet, our research with BMSG revealed that we have a long way to go when it comes to reporting accurately on abortion. While mainstream news currently focuses on federal and state laws or political arguments, the public is not seeing abortion as the common and safe part of health care it is. Furthermore, as the news regularly uses stigmatizing language that refers to abortion as murder, characterizes it as harmful, and describes abortion providers as greedy or unscrupulous, we must ask ourselves how this affects those who read the news.

With continued research and media advocacy, we can begin to shift the stigma that is present in our news and fill the gaps in the public discourse of abortion. Working with journalists, advocates, storytellers, and the public, we can both hold the media accountable for their own bias and create the representations we want to see. We must continue to share empirical information, support those who share their abortion stories publicly, and develop and share language that connects abortion to our common American values of family and freedom. Together, we can shift how abortion is portrayed in news media as a normal part of reproductive healthcare and family life.

To read the study’s recommendations on what advocates and journalist can do to shift abortion stigma in the news, click here.

This post originally appeared on Medium and is reprinted here with permission.

By: Lauren Himiak and Steph Herold, Sea Change Program 

Top photo: Full-Frontal With Samantha Bee

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The Sea Change Program is a non-profit working to shift stigma so that all can live their sexual and reproductive lives with dignity and respect. Follow them on  http://seachangeprogram.org, and on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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