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Abortion Stigma and the Politics of the Closet

AP Images Abortion Stigma and the Politics of the Closet

Any day now the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which may be the most important abortion case in decades. The case involves a challenge to two provisions of Texas's House Bill 2, an anti-abortion law enacted in July 2013 that, if allowed to go into effect, would force the vast majority of Texas abortion clinics to close. Lambda Legal submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court in this case because its outcome is crucial to LGBT people. Many members of our own community need access to abortion services. Additionally, landmark court victories for LGBT people share a common doctrinal foundation with precedents protecting the constitutional right to abortion; erosion of the right to terminate a pregnancy puts LGBT civil rights at risk.

The two interconnected struggles for reproductive autonomy and LGBT liberation also share a common obstacle. People who have an abortion — whether members of the LGBT community or not — experience something familiar to all LGBT people: stigma. Although abortion is one of the most safe and common surgical procedures in the United States, two in three women who have had abortions anticipate being stigmatized if others find out. This concern of being “outed” as having had an abortion keeps 58 percent of those who have had abortions from sharing their stories with their families and friends. This silence perpetuates abortion stigma and interferes with the ability of those who have accessed abortion to advocate for themselves in the political arena. As the LGBT community knows all too well, it is hard to fight against efforts to roll back your civil rights when you have to remain in the closet. 

That many people who have had abortions keep silent about their experiences is understandable because silence can be an important shield against external stigma. Silence protects people who have had abortions from damage to intimate relationships and negative effects on their social standing. However, it comes at a cost. Concealing a stigmatized status can become internalized as shame even when there is nothing to be ashamed of. Additionally, like those in the LGBT closet, people who have had abortions can’t always control whether and when their status is revealed, causing further stress.

Much of the stigma around abortion arises because the act of terminating a pregnancy is seen as deeply transgressing gender norms. Abortion challenges traditional stereotypes of women as mothers and self-sacrificing nurturers. Transgender men also may experience stigma in accessing abortion because abortion services often are segregated from other health needs and described as exclusive to women, which further stigmatizes all abortion patients. 

We, in the fight for equality of LGBT people and people living with HIV, understand the harms of stigma all too well. We know that stigma — whether visible or not — produces tangible problems in health and interpersonal relationships. In Obergefell v. Hodges — the Supreme Court ruling striking down laws banning same-sex marriage — the majority of justices recognized the harm that stigma can cause to same-sex couples and their children, and described how marriage bans violate individuals’ equal dignity and burden their ability to participate fully in society.

We also know that stigma associated with the exercise of a fundamental right — whether it is the right to love the person of one’s choice or the right to terminate a pregnancy — interferes with a person’s ability to come out of the closet to advocate on his or her own behalf in legislatures, in ballot fights, and in numerous other settings. Just as voters and legislators are likely to be more affirming of LGBT people if they realize that they know someone personally who identifies as LGBT, they are likely to be more affirming of the right to abortion if they realize how many people close to them have accessed abortion services. Though the choice of whether or not to “come out” of the abortion closet is a deeply personal one, LGBT people know all too well the political cost of remaining silent.

CAMILLA TAYLOR is counsel for Lambda Legal and lead author of Lambda Legal’s friend-of-the-court brief in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellstedt. CAROLINE SACERDOTE is the Ford Foundation Post-Graduate Fellow in Public Interest Law at Lambda Legal, and KARA INGELHART is the Skadden Law Fellow also at Lambda Legal.
 

Tags: Commentary, Women

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