Stubborn Stigmas Preventing Full Reproductive Freedom

Laura Carroll, Childfree Choice

As Election Day approaches, Roe v Wade remains the law of the land, but with a Republican victory and an aging Supreme Court… this law may very well be in jeopardy. As President Barack Obama said on August 8th in Denver, “The next president could tip the balance of the court in a way that turns back the clock for women and families for decades to come.”

As troubling as this reality may be, regardless of who wins the Presidential election we’ll still have a ways to go when it comes to reaching true reproductive freedom. Now and after the election, two stubborn stigmas stigmathat prevent it will be with us.

One has been talked about more than ever before in the last decade. The other relates to a central social issue of this election, and needs to be talked about a lot more.

What stigma has been recently talked about more than ever before? Not having children by choice. A decade ago, there were a just few books out on the topic, and a bit of research had been done in the area of “voluntary childlessness.” Rarely did we see this topic discussed in the media.

Over the last decade or so, not only have more books been published on this topic than ever before, more research on the childfree choice has been conducted than ever before, and this growing trend has been profiled in television, radio, print and digital media more ever before.

However, even with all the exposure and education, as Norma Lizeth Morales’ describes in her recent Huffpo piece, “a ‘purposely childless family’ isn’t quite socially acceptable yet.” She’s right. While better than in generations past, the stigma around not wanting to become parents remains alive and well. The childfree on TV segments, radio shows, books and articles are still explaining, justifying, and debunking untrue notions, including that it’s not “normal” to say no to raising children, that the childfree hate children, they are selfish, and will surely will end up alone and lonely when they are old.

Why does society still stigmatize having no children by choice? Because the majority remain fundamentally stuck on the long-held pronatalist belief that we are all wired to want to become parents.

Bucking pronatalist assumptions takes us to the second stubborn stigma. It’s the stigma surrounding abortion. Now, we expect anti-abortion proponents to stigmatize abortion. However, how even the pro-choice community buys into and furthers abortion stigma needs a deeper look.

According to researcher and Board Chair of the Global Fund for Women Leila Hessini, the “root of all barriers that women–and even providers–face to obtain or perform abortions” is the “the social construct” behind abortion stigma. What’s at the heart of the construct? Pronatalist beliefs about motherhood.

Leila Hessini and her colleagues Anuradha Kumara and Ellen M.H. Mitchell speak to pronatalist assumptions about the “essential nature” of women that are violated when they choose to end pregnancy, including “the inevitability of motherhood,” how “all women are expected to need motherhood,” their “perpetual fecundity” and “instinctive nurturing.” In their article, “Conceptualising Abortion Stigma,” they make the point that choosing to end a pregnancy “counters prevailing views of women as perpetual life givers, and asserts women’s moral autonomy in a way that can be deeply threatening.”

Despite the fact that one in three women have abortions in the United States, and “a much higher share of all women globally terminate a pregnancy sometime during their reproductive lives,” because it goes against these and other ways in which women are supposed to be, abortion is still viewed as something that is “wrong, inappropriate, or deviant.”

The language surrounding abortion also supports negative associations. For example, the popular language in which it is talked about – wanting it be “safe, legal and rare,” reinforces the idea that abortion is wrong and abnormal. And as Hessini describes, “even abortion providers and clinics–sometimes unknowingly–create an atmosphere that stigmatizes women. Some American women have shared that paying for their abortion felt ‘like a drug deal’ and others say the security, while justified, made it ‘seem all the more like a shameful, secretive thing.'”

When it has to remain secret or when it brings shame, women don’t have true reproductive freedom. As long as there are stigmas related to not wanting children or ending unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy, women will not have full reproductive liberty. Women should not only have the power and the legal right to make their own reproductive decisions, they should not, as Hessini so aptly says, “be judged–by society, by their communities, by the health system, nor by us.”

There are signs of progress. Hessini and her colleagues at Ipas (International Pregnancy Advisory Services) are working towards “stigma-free language, concepts and services.” They see the need to change “the narrative” around abortion. The narrative needs to change around having no children by choice as well. To successfully change the narrative means taking a hard look at what we’ve been taught to believe about women and their reproductive lives. Ultimately, it means challenging the assumptions of a pronatal society.


3 thoughts on “Stubborn Stigmas Preventing Full Reproductive Freedom

  1. At heart, much of the opposition to abortion is not from religious ideas but from an inability to imagine reproduction as a choice in the first place. It’s harder to accept reproductive rights when it’s hard to imagine someone ever choosing a “no” option. Even when people speak out in favor of birth control, it’s always about “not having kids until you’re ready” or because “you’re done having kids,” with almost no mention of the idea of having none at all. Like, of course you’re still supposed to have them at some point – birth control is just there to make your timing better somehow.

    But, if we recognized reproduction as a choice, then parents would be forced to take more responsibility for their situation. They would have to own their choices and have no one to blame but themselves for their hardships. For American parents, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. If it’s “natural” or a “blessing” or a “miracle” or “just what happened,” then you don’t have to own any responsibility for it. You can then feel better about imposing on the rest of “the village.”

    Our society has a lot invested, psychologically and intellectually, in the idea of parenting as something that just happens to you, not as something that you chose for yourself. People always say they “became” a parent or the baby “arrived” or they “were blessed.” Or someone just “got pregnant” somehow. That way, you can’t say you were selfish for having kids, because it’s not really your fault, right? An accident can’t be selfish, can it?

  2. Laura, how much, if any, do you think the 1990s TV hit show “Seinfeld” had on the perceptions of the chidlfree? All of the show’s major characters were childfree (even Elaine, the only female main character), and many of the episodes portrayed children negatively in one way or another. The main characters were misfits in some ways but were lovable misfits providing humor for the millions of viewers every week fo 9 years.

    1. Hi Deegee-Re your question-not sure. I do think that the characters were looked at a “single” and that if the show had gone on, kids would have entered the picture if one of them married. But in the show none could get that far!

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