Centre for Cultures of Reproduction, Technologies and Health

Raise Your Voice for Choice – The Power of Disclosure in fighting Abortion Stigma

CORTH Blog: 18 December 2017

Sara Lykke Madsen

MA student, Sussex University
Email: S.Madsen@sussex.ac.uk

Sara Lykke Madsen blog photo 1The power of disclosure has gained much public attention recently in wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the subsequent #MeToo campaign on social media. Women from all walks of life and across the world shared their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, opening up a public debate about the extent and pervasiveness of such occurrences. One person’s testimony became another person’s encouragement and women stepped out in solidarity and support of each other’s stories by adding their own experience to the collective voice against sexual violence. In relation to my own work as a human rights student and an activist interested specifically in abortion rights I have spent the past few weeks reflecting on the dynamics of abortion stigma and the importance of raising your voice if you are pro-choice.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act into British law: the legal framework which effectively legalised abortion in England, Wales and Scotland and a law that in itself is relatively permissive and effective. ‘Good law’ is essential and necessary to ensuring good practice and access, yet it is not in itself sufficient. Abortion stigma, which until recently has been a surprisingly underdeveloped area of research, has been pointed out by the World Health Organization to be one of the main obstacles for women in obtaining free, safe and legal abortions. It can affect both the women who obtain, or seek to obtain abortions, as well as sometimes extend even to their partners, family, healthcare professionals or others who are openly supportive of abortion. American sociologist Erving Gottman described stigma as an attribute that reduces the possessor “from a whole and a usual person to a tainted, discounted one”.

Sara Lykke Madsen blog photo 2Dilys Cossey and Diane Munday

Abortion in particular challenges traditional gender stereotypes regarding women and motherhood and taps into the fear of women’s sexual promiscuity. A woman who obtains an abortion is subjected to the scrutiny of a society that believes a woman can only be a whole person if she inhabits the role of a selfless, caring mother. Importantly, abortion, much like sexual assault, represents a concealable stigma: one that can be hidden away from the eyes of strangers and friends alike, which makes disclosure, and how it is received, pivotal in the discussion on how to reduce stigma. While no woman should in anyway feel forced to talk about her abortion we must challenge the idea that having had an abortion is an unspeakable thing, or even an unusual thing. One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime and it is time we consider how can ensure that women are not forced into silence because that echoing silence in itself contributes to the continuance of stigma.

Enabling women to feel safe in disclosing their experiences starts with empowering women to share their stories. On the 28th of October this year I attended an event in London arranged by Abortion Rights UK in celebration of the Abortion Act’s anniversary during which I had the pleasure of hearing abortion rights activists Dilys Cossey and Diane Munday speak. Cossey and Munday were both at the forefront of the abortion rights campaign in the 1960s and contributed greatly to the passing of the act in 1967. During the panel, Diane Munday spoke eloquently of how every time she stepped forward and spoke about her own abortion, other women would come forward to her and state that they had an in fact also had an abortion.

Sara Lykke Madsen blog photo 3An event held by the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign outside the Irish embassy on 30th September this year protesting the 8th amendment. Each chalk marking represents one of the 205,704 Irish and Northern Irish women who has had an abortion in the UK since the introduction of the 8th amendment.


I have recently realised that since I ‘came out’ as a pro-choice activist and began actively focusing my academic work on abortion rights I myself have had a number of women in a variety of contexts come forward to me privately about their experience with having had abortions. Some of them had not told anyone else. As someone who has always struggled with a feeling of disconnect between academia and the ‘real’ world outside the four walls of university, I have often felt that I was simply shouting into a similar-minded void. It is profound and encouraging to finally see that my own voice, while still young and evolving, can in some way be used to empower other women to come forward with their experiences. Therefore I would like to encourage others, particularly students, to be vocal in their beliefs. Be an activist. Pave the way for others. Bring your activism into your academic work – ensure that the two are acting in symbiosis. Take the discussion when it arises, no matter where that may be. Break the silence that perpetuates stigma. Be loudly, and proudly, pro-choice.