I had no one to support me after my abortion senior year of high school, mostly because seeking support would mean telling someone my secret.
At the time, I lived with my aunt during the week to attend the high school in her affluent neighborhood. Though she was a Black woman, her predominantly White and Asian community was different from the one I was used to. I felt every bit of my status as an outcast.
The parallel lines on that pregnancy test were an added marker of difference that signified I was more of an anxious fugitive than a welcome visitor. At 17 years old, I was familiar with how an unintended pregnancy could derail one’s life, especially if it happened to a teen. On the other hand, I lacked a script for what to do when you didn’t intend to carry that pregnancy to term.
Abortion stigma exists everywhere. Even in countries where abortion is incredibly accessible, people still face stigma, shame, and isolation.
Zachi Brewster, an abortion doula and sex and pleasure educator, who alternates living between England and Italy, says the biggest societal failure in supporting individuals who’ve had abortions is not teaching about them or having considerations that normalize the experience before someone finds themselves needing an abortion.
“When I’m supporting someone, I always ask, ‘when did you first learn about abortion?’ because that often gives them an idea about where their ideas about abortion came from—and how they think about their abortion,” she says, noting the political context in which we frame abortion often prevents the space for care.
Had we had that conversation when I was pregnant at 17, I’d say television, because my primary source of public health and social education, neglected the topic. For that reason, the end of my pregnancy marked the gestation of 10 years of shame and fear of stigma.
While roughly one in four individuals capable of being pregnant have an abortion by 45, many are left to process the experience alone. In a world full of abortion stigma, we find many ways of asking, “who loves and supports the individuals who have had abortions?” And now, as the world tries to make sense of the enactment of Texas’ devastating SB 8 abortion law that bans abortion after six weeks, we’re reminded that individuals seeking abortions need even more support. Abortion advocates say challenging stigma, listening, and demonstrating unconditional kindness are vital to showing that love.
Challenging Stigma and the Oversimplification of Abortion
“The truth is that abortion stigma exists everywhere. Even in countries where abortion is incredibly accessible, people still face stigma, shame, and isolation. This shows that even in these countries, there’s the element of care and support that is missing,” says Camila Ochoa Mendoza, a reproductive justice researcher in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the producer of the podcast Abortion, with love.
Ochoa Mendoza leaned into abortion support after witnessing the loving sense of community at an International Network for the Reduction of Abortion Discrimination and Stigma (inroads) gathering. She realized she could make an impact by normalizing talking about abortion and leading those conversations with joy, respect, and love.
Her podcast was born of a central question: “What would happen if we stopped dedicating our time and energy trying to convince people that we are worthy of love and care and instead shift our attention inwards, to our community, to the people who have abortions, and ensuring that they are taken care of?”
Racial discrimination, the prison and immigration industrial complexes, and wage disparities create barriers to individuals’ ability to raise families in nurturing communities.
Ochoa Mendoza says that too often individuals are left to process the scrutiny of their reproductive choices—especially with abortion—as the public lacks consideration for how patterns of oppression and inequality inform these choices. Instead, she says, we adapt “simplistic narratives” to discuss abortion that label us to the benefit of political parties and to the detriment of the people seeking abortion services.
Reproductive Justice activists have long highlighted the failure of the anti-abortion rights/pro-abortion rights binary. Anti-abortion rights conservatives often deprioritize the personhood of pregnant individuals and deny the importance of reproductive equity, often co-opting the language of the civil rights movement. The pro-abortion rights perspective prioritizes legal access but overlooks how a history of racialized reproductive oppression through forced sterilization and family separation adds nuance to individuals’ reproductive decisions. Still, mainstream conversations on reproduction, specifically abortion, have only recently begun to challenge this language.
Both movements articulate motherhood from a middle-class—and often White—perspective that alienates low-income, queer, and BIPOC individuals through an emphasis on the legal system. Neither address how racial discrimination, the prison and immigration industrial complexes, and wage disparities create barriers to individuals’ ability to raise families in nurturing communities. Those same barriers block abortion access—and care.
Through her podcast, Ochoa Mendoza aims to create space to honor all experiences of abortion and to celebrate those working to make the world a safer place for abortion seekers.
“When you’re trying to get an abortion, there’s so much energy focused on the physical, there’s no space to think about the emotional,” says Brewster, who believes individuals can “hold multiple truths” while processing their abortion experience. Through her work, she has found that most people just need someone to talk to.
“That is so simple, but it is hugely impactful when you feel that you have a space where you can go and tell someone your story, where you feel seen, where you feel supported, where you know that person [won’t] judge them,” Brewster says.
While an abortion might be an empowering “act of self-love” for some, she believes each individual deserves support that is anchored in community and one’s individual needs based on their circumstance. Brewster’s organization, DOPO, is a gender-inclusive, community-oriented resource for abortion support-seekers and support-providers that meets people where they are in processing their abortion experience.
Like Ochoa Mendoza, Brewster suggests “choice” can be inaccurate to describe individuals’ efforts to provide for themselves, and often their existing families, amid many forms of structural inequality. Instead, she frames her advocacy under a model of providing and receiving care in community.
“It would be wonderful if people had time to seek support from someone who could support from the moment you’re considering an abortion right through. But because of the politics and the pressure, many people come to me after. “
When seeking an abortion, one of the most significant types of pressure is time. Infamous “heartbeat bills” like the one in Texas—where I had my first abortion—intersect with financial, travel, and employment barriers forcing individuals, especially those who are marginalized and low-income, to expedite the decision-making process.
Kindness Through Logistical Support
Gina Martinez, co-founder and organizer of the Colorado Doula Project, notes that even people who consider themselves pro-choice uphold narratives that “crisis” in life circumstance or fetal anomaly is the only legitimate reason to terminate a pregnancy.
“I think a lot of people feel like they need to justify why they’re having an abortion, and that kind of stigma and lack of acceptance isolates people,” says Martinez, who experienced a related yet different stigma while unmarried and pregnant with her daughter at 22. She realized that both choices—embracing parenthood or terminating the pregnancy—came with judgment.
The lack of support for pregnant people can leave them vulnerable to crisis pregnancy centers, which are receiving an increasing amount of local government funds. “Crisis pregnancy centers receive federal funding… yet study after study shows that CPCs routinely provide misleading and inaccurate medical information,” says Katelyn Bryant-Comstock of IntraHealth International in Chapel Hill, in a 2019 interview with Reuters. The Colorado Doula Project supports individuals with the logistical aspects of abortion.
Martinez realized that people seeking abortions were severely underserved and often needed non-monetary forms of support, like transportation or someone to temporarily handle the process of grocery shopping or providing meals. They address the needs that, when left unaddressed, can push individuals towards crisis pregnancy centers.
In addition to funding abortions up to 24 weeks and providing transportation, Martinez says, CDP mails preventative resources like condoms, emergency contraceptives, pregnancy tests, prenatal vitamins, and post-abortion care packages for free.
“Every single one of those people, what they need is kindness. That’s one of the most simple and radical things that you can do,” she says.
Like Ochoa Mendoza and Brewster, Martinez speaks of challenging our own perspectives around abortion as an integral part of supporting others. Each one emphasized understanding abortion more holistically, going beyond the political binary narrative, and deepening that understanding through an equity lens.
When supporting individuals seeking abortion health care or supporting those who are processing their experience small act can make a big difference. Looking for ways to get involved?
Highlight and share first-hand accounts in abortion storytelling efforts, such as WeTestify. Consider signing up for abortion doula trainings like those hosted through DOPO, or fund it for someone else. Use the directory through The National Network Of Abortions Funds to find the folks doing the work near you. If you don’t have the funds to contribute, you can always support with your time.
But whatever you do, don’t be silent, because, in the words of Renee Bracey Sherman, everyone loves someone who has had an abortion.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist working to amplify Black women's voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. In addition to YES! her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fast Company, and a host of other publications. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackMotherhood movement. She can be reached at amfcontent.com for business inquiries and on social media for social connections.