Opponents of abortion services have historically tried to silence women’s voices through the politics of shame. If you can bully women into feeling shame about abortion, the playbook goes, you can control the conversation, fostering the easy spread of misinformation.
This tactic was exceedingly clear during a hearing held this month (or, as Katrina vanden Heuvel termed it, a “modern-day inquisition”), where Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) tried to shame Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards using a chart that implied the number of abortions provided by Planned Parenthood has overtaken the number of cancer screenings and preventative services.
The problem for Chaffetz was that Richards knew the chart was wrong, and she told him so. The media had a field day, quickly criticizing and correcting Chaffetz’s chart, solving one of this year’s greatest mysteries—the case of the missing Y-axis.
Unfortunately, while the congressman’s high-profile attempt to bully and mislead a woman on abortion information was stopped cold, the same is not true for the misleading information that everyday women receive when it comes to reproductive health.
Crisis Pregnancy Centers and Their Intent to Mislead
One way that the anti-abortion movement has been growing its on-the-ground campaigning is through crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs). While the mission of these centers—providing counseling services to women with unintended pregnancies—seems helpful, they are typically staffed and often funded by religious anti-abortion organizations, such as Care Net and Heartbeat International.
These centers are no small force—while Planned Parenthood operates 700 clinics across the country, there are at least 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers, according to NARAL. Overall, there are roughly three times as many anti-abortion centers as abortion clinics nationwide, and as many as eleven states currently fund CPCs.
While CPCs are typically ideologically motivated, they often take great pains to appear otherwise. The advocacy group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, conducted a report detailing the tactics CPCs commonly use to mislead women. They found that many centers set themselves up to look like medical clinics, with their staff dressing up in lab coats and asking patients to fill out forms, despite the fact that most of them are not licensed medical providers.
Many CPCs also locate themselves near actual health clinics, often to the confusion of women who are seeking medical information. The report points out one CPC in Massachusetts, named Problem Pregnancy, which was located on the same floor as a Planned Parenthood—and used the same PP acronym. Some centers go so far to imply that they actually provide abortion services, telling women who call asking for pricing on abortions that they need to come in for an appointment in order to receive that information (despite the fact that they don’t offer or refer abortion services).
A congressional report found that 20 out of 23 federally funded pregnancy centers investigated gave out false medical information, such as saying that abortions are associated with a higher chance of breast cancer, future infertility, and mental health problems. Finding these sorts of misstatements from CPCs is not hard. For example, the website of a CPC in Anchorage, Alaska, implies that abortion leads to posttraumatic stress disorder and breast cancer (it doesn’t).
Some members of Congress have introduced bills to prohibit these centers’ deceptive advertising, and some states are taking steps to regulate them as well. Most recently, on the state level, California passed legislation requiring CPCs to post notices such as saying that abortion is available to women in the state, and disclosing whether a center has or lacks a licensed medical provider.
CPCs often operate in a legal grey area. As Meaghan Winter, a journalist who has done extensive reporting on CPCs points out, many of the women who these centers are misleading could be protected under consumer protection laws that prohibit consumer fraud. However, she states that “one big barrier to consumer fraud litigation is the power imbalance between CPCs and the women who could potentially file fraud claims.”
As it turns out, many women who end up at these centers are from vulnerable populations. This is not by chance—pregnancy centers target young and low-income populations by advertising on college campuses and low-income neighborhoods. Young, disadvantaged, misled, and made to feel shame about her situation, it is hard to imagine a CPC visitor turning around to file a consumer fraud suit.
Turning the Tables
Much of the success of anti-abortion activists’ tactics is fueled by the stigma that they have wrapped around the provision of abortion services. If women are afraid to ask for information or speak openly about abortion, contraception, or reproductive health in general, then they are more likely to be pressured or misled by organizations such as crisis pregnancy centers.
One recent attempt to reverse that stigma is a campaign organized under the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion, started by Amelia Bonow and Lindy West. Using the hashtag, many women have openly described their abortion experiences online, with stories ranging from heartbreaking to completely mundane. (Of course, some have responded by sending these women death threats and photos of bloody fetuses—proving that the drive to shame and terrorize abortion is alive and well.)
West, in an article for the Guardian, stated that because women have conceded to whispering about their abortions, the “opponents of abortion get to define it however suits them best.” Even pro-choice Democrats have been cowed, historically adopting a narrow description of abortion as “safe, legal, and rare.” But as the hashtag is making clear, the portion of women who have sought an abortion—one in three—is not small. It is a significant proportion of the American populace that will not be forced to whisper anymore.
I asked Elizabeth Miner, a patient care coordinator at Planned Parenthood (and, full disclosure, a former classmate) what she thought of the hashtag. She replied, “It’s great because there is too much blame put on patients. I tell them: You shouldn’t feel like you’re the only one going through this decision, and that one in three women have abortions before they hit menopause. People are always consistently surprised. As a society, we haven’t changed that.”
How to Change the Conversation
While #ShoutYourAbortion is a good step, it is no silver bullet. Part of the solution must involve properly regulating organizations such as crisis pregnancy centers. States and cities should follow the lead of California and New York City, requiring CPCs to post signage disclosing whether a licensed medical provider works there and if the centers provide abortion referrals. (Meaghan Winter’s piece at Slate also speaks to additional possibilities and legal challenges for addressing CPCs.)
But, on the most basic level, #ShoutYourAbortion has shown that, if a woman feels safe enough in doing so, simply sharing abortion experiences with friends and families in order to take back the narrative surrounding the issue can have a powerful effect in reducing stigma. No longer pressured into feeling shame, a woman might be more comfortable with asking her friends where to get correct information about reproductive health. For someone who is pregnant and looking for help, that can make all the difference.