There are more than a few ways to make someone flinch, especially in Utah. Bringing up abortion really does the trick.
For a state founded by weary religious families seeking a life of peace, freedom and choice, Utah has little sympathy for women who desire similar protections for their own bodies. Our laws enforce restrictions on abortion services that not only prevent women from seeking a safe and restorative medical procedure, but also cultivate a perception that abortion is morally wrong, according to Women’s Health Issues research in 2011. This negative perception produces a powerful stigma against a woman’s right to choose and a hostile attitude towards women’s sexuality.
Utah’s foundations in religion also promote a tradition of motherhood that is indivisible from womanhood. Conventional gender norms and religious institutions alike have popularized the female figure as nurturing, demure and sexually pure. Abortion is further stigmatized in Utah and other conservative states because the right to terminate a pregnancy endorses a women’s participation in non-procreative sex and the right of women to exercise control over their own reproduction. Stigma not only seeks to diminish female sexuality, but also creates insecure environments for women to practice agency.
Every Utahn is entitled to his or her opinion regarding the morality of the issue, but stigma has unintended consequences that reach beyond mere individuals. Heaping shame upon women who have had abortions dissuades other women from seeking abortion services and facilitates undue hostility towards abortion providers, making it difficult for other women to access the same services in the future. Those women will instead carry their pregnancies to term and are more likely to take on a disproportionate economic burden of childbirth and childcare, and more likely to require financial assistance from state or federal sources.
Stigma against abortion also carries a tradition of silence. Women who obtain abortions are expected to keep it to themselves. When women suffer anxiety or fear over the reactions of their peers, they are reluctant to communicate their experiences with abortion to family, friends or partners; they are effectively deterred from seeking or receiving social support, which contributes to feelings of guilt or shame. While the pro-life movement attributes negative emotional outcomes to the procedure itself, studies indicate that adverse mental outcomes are more highly correlated with a lack of social support.
There is a dire need to reduce this stigma. Women who seek abortions are representative of the entire social spectrum, but the greater portion are women from low-income backgrounds who rely more heavily on community support to participate fully as functioning members of society. Fear of shame and ostracization prevents women from seeking out a simple and safe procedure which would allow them to maintain control of their bodies, their plans, and their futures.
Some may find it productive to aim for protecting the sanctity of life at any stage they can successfully label it, but if Utahns truly value human life, we should focus less on cell growth and more on ensuring that the women who already exist, who are already enacting change on their environment, are the first to be protected. Eliminating the stigma associated with abortion is a solid step in the right direction.
Unexpected pregnancy is a difficult situation for anyone to find herself in, and there are several options for choosing the next step, but women who choose abortion deserve a procedure that is safe, legal, and respectfully accepted. Whatever the rationale, the choice to terminate a pregnancy is a private medical decision between a woman and her doctor, and does not deserve the scrutiny of lawmakers or nosy neighbors. Interference by any other individual or body is unproductive, costly and ultimately harmful to Utah women.
Kaelen Penrod studies political science at Brigham Young University and interns at Alliance for a Better Utah.