2012, TEDx event, Canberra, Australia
I had an abortion. Or maybe I didn’t. Why does it matter?
Abortion shame is very zeitgeist at the moment. Or, more precisely and far more happily, anti-shame is very zeitgeist. In The New York Times, in a number of online magazines and on websites like 1 in 3, 45 Million Voices and Exhale women are speaking out. They’re resisting the shame by breaking their silence about their abortions.
But the success of this fledgling speak-out movement is far from guaranteed. Indeed if we want it to succeed we are going to have to help. But before I can tell you what it is that you can do to stand up for women, I really need to take you on a bit of a 360 around shame. I need to talk to you about what it is, how it works and what it does to its victims.
So I thought what I would ask you to do is just actually stop looking at me for a minute, and have a look around you. So look at your neighbours, smile at them, we’re at TED – “it’s cool!”(does a little dance) – and now focus in on the women. So just meet the eyes of the women and smile while I tell you that one in three of those women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Now that would be true if this were an Australian audience or a British audience or an American audience. One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. And if you haven’t yet, you can stop looking at each other now.
Now there are a lot of ways that I could have made that point. I could have thrown something like this up on the screen (illustration of 1 in 3 women) and I could have said “One in three Australian, British and American women will have an abortion in their lifetime”. I could have said “According to the World Health Organisation, abortion – medical or surgical – is one of the safest and most common medical procedures. But it’s not the same, is it? What if I had said “Ok, have a look around at everybody in the audience, focus in on the women while I tell you that every single one of those women in the next five years is going to blow her nose”. Not the same.
That is shame.
We actually aren’t born feeling ashamed of anything. We’re not ashamed of our nakedness, we’re not ashamed of our bodily functions, our sexual desires, our reproduction or abortion. We learn, from our communities, what is shameful. And it is the real or perceived oversight of those communities that make us feel shame.
Now shame is about fear, but what are we afraid of? This is Renee Brown (shows picture on screen). She gave a fantastic TED talk – which I really commend to you – about shame and when I went screaming off to find her academic work. And what I discovered was that according to Brown, what shame IS, is the acutely anxiety inducing experience that we are flawed and that others are going to find out. That we are flawed in comparison to other people and other people are going to find that out. And when they do, they’re going to demean us, or ridicule us, or judge us and cast us out.
So I’ve used that word cast out for a reason. And the reason is that I’m trying to underscore the fact that the consequences that people fear, the fear that shame evokes in people, the consequences they fear of being shamed are very, very real. They’re very, very significant.
So in ancient times, if a woman brought shame on her name, or her family, or her community she could literally be thrown out of that community. Cast out. She could be stoned. In some places in the world today, that is still the case.
In our world, a woman might be afraid if people find out that she’s had an abortion that her church community will evict her. Or she might be worried that her family, or her boyfriend, or her husband might throw her out of the house. Or that her friends will start a whisper campaign about her. But the thing is, that those fears all cut to something very, very essential about us; very, very primal. And indeed that is why shame is such an ancient form of social control. Because it actually goes to something that may be hardwired in us. Which is this desire to stay in connection with other human beings. Shame evokes the fear of disconnection.
I had an abortion. Or maybe I didn’t. Why do you care?
That’s the shame cycle (Diagram of shame=silence=ignorance etc.). Shame equals silence equals ignorance. But before I can tell you and will tell you about that silence and that ignorance and how it hurts women I wanna tell you one thing that shame doesn’t do.
Shame does not stop women having abortions.
Now the data on this is not great and I’m a researcher so I care about this kind of stuff, and it’s not great because it’s difficult data to get and because abortion is stigmatised so the research funding isn’t there. But from what we can tell, shame does not stop many, if any women from having abortions. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt women. It does. And it hurts them by silencing them and by causing ignorance. So let’s talk about that.
Silent women can’t ask for support. Two thirds of women fear that if others find out their abortion they will look down on them and so, nearly that number – 58 to 60% – don’t tell their friends and their family about their abortion and talk about their abortion little or not at all.
Silent women can’t share information. So if I reach out to someone and say “Oh my God, I’ve got, I’m pregnant when I don’t wanna be, I don’t know what to do” and someone says to me “Oh you know, that’s terrible, like that happened to me too and here’s how I felt and here’s how it went and I went to this clinic and it was terrific or I went to that one and it wasn’t so good but WHATEVER you do if you go to this one, be really careful because across the street, there’s a building that’s dolled up to look like the abortion clinic but it’s actually not an abortion clinic at all. It’s run by a pro-life agency and by the time you even work out where you are, they will have told you a whole bunch of false information about abortion, they may have told you you’re going to hell, and by the time you stumble out of there you’ll have missed your appointment.”
Silent women DON’T ask for the laws they need and deserve. And indeed this was actually how I came into the shame issue because I am an abortion rights activist. And in order to change the laws, to try to get things out of the law that hurt women, to try to put things into the law to protect women, I actually need to raise awareness amongst decision makers and amongst the public that there is a problem. So if you think about any news item that you’ve ever seen or a newspaper article about some broad social issue, you’ll see that it starts with a story. It starts with a story of a particular person and that’s so that it doesn’t seem so abstract and you can actually see that this broad social issue that’s being spoken about is actually hurting someone and that’s why it is, we need to make the effort to change things.
But if I can’t get women to tell their stories, I can’t get things in the media. Or if I do get them in the media, I get them buried at the back of the news bulletin or at the back of the paper where they have less influence. I couldn’t even get women to come to Canberra and talk to politicians. And that means that it’s really hard for me to make some of the changes that I wanna make.
So you’ve gotta ask yourself; if shame is so bad for women, then why is it still happening? And who is doing it?
Well the answer to who’s doing it is the Shame Stokers. And the reason is that shame is a gift that just keeps on giving. Shame equals silence equals ignorance equals shame equals silence equals more ignorance equals more shame and more silence and more ignorance. And that silence and that ignorance is the fertiliser for the ground on which repressive abortion laws and policies flourish.
So I wanna give you a bit of a feel for what Shame Stoking looks and sounds like. Because the weird thing is that women who’ve had abortions can hear it and it is around us all the time. But people who aren’t tuned into it can’t hear it. So it’s really important that you see it, you hear it and you recognise when it’s about. Ok, so here’s some examples, and I should say to you that I could have picked from thousands, so this is really just a tasting plate.
“A legacy of unutterable shame.” That was said by an Australian Health Minister, who said that Australia’s abortion rate was a national tragedy that left a legacy of unutterable shame.
“Vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant.” This was said very recently by an American legislator who was one of a number who’s trying to change laws, and indeed some of these laws have been successfully implemented, that require a woman who is seeking abortion to have an ultrasound. But you see most women who have abortions have them very early on in pregnancy, which means that kind of usual ultrasound doesn’t work. You can’t see anything; it’s all just too small. So, instead, they mandate that a probe be inserted inside that woman. This is a non-medically indicated, trans-vaginal ultrasound. The woman’s doctor is forced to give it to her, even though there’s no medical reason for it and she may have denied consent. And when it was pointed out to this legislator that in any other context you would call that rape, he essentially said “Well, we don’t have to worry about those sort of women because, after all, they were vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant.”
And our final Shame Stoking is “abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people”. This was said by a Catholic Archbishop, again not long ago, to a group of young people. And I just wanna stop for a minute on this one, and just underscore what is really being said here. So what is being said is, the moral evil that we need to concern ourselves about is NOT men in positions of authority and trust who rape children and or then cover it up. The REAL moral problem of our time is women who have abortions.
So there’s a couple of messages that the Shame Stokers are sending us there.
One message is DIRECT to women who’ve had abortions. So what they’re worried about is if they talk about their abortion, they’ll be shamed and judged and cast out. And the Shame Stokers are saying to them “you bet your LIFE you will. You put your head above the parapet Missy and we will kick you in the teeth.”
And the second message the Shame Stokers are sending is to all of us. And it’s really a lesson worth learning. And it is this. That if you don’t tell your own story, other people will tell that story for you. Silence does not stay silent for long.
So. This is an optimistic challenge, right. And I’ve just dragged ya right down into the mud. Do not worry because we are heading up! And the reason we are heading up is because there is absolutely nothing that I have just told you that you can not do something about.
(Crowd starts applauding) You bet! You bet!
Communities cause shame. And communities can stop it. So let’s talk about what you can do.
Reach out. (Photo of two hands holding, “You are not alone” written on their arms.) Women who’ve had abortions who feel supported experience less shame. And less of shame’s noxious, down stream consequences. So let the women in your world know that you are NOT a Shame Stoker. That if they talk to you about a problem pregnancy or an abortion, you will NOT judge them. You will NOT shame them. But YOU will listen with empathy and compassion, and let them know that they are not alone.
You can dance. (Photo of a woman wearing a T-shirt that says “Abortion. A fact of life. Let’s end the stigma.) At the end of this month in Melbourne, women, and men are going to get out onto the street wearing T-shirts like that and they’re going to say exactly that. “We are not Shame Stokers.” They are going to say to women “We wanna stand up for you and AGAINST abortion shame”. And we are hoping, umm, Reproductive Choice Australia is hoping – ‘cause we’re organising this event – we are desperately hoping it’s gonna catch on like wildfire; we want it to go right around the globe; we want communities everywhere to kick this sort of positive, uplifting message to send out to the women in their community that says “The time for shame is over”. And if you can’t get to one of those flashmobs and/or if you do go and you wanna do something else, you can actually take that precise pledge online. You can pledge that you will not engage in abortion shaming and you will not tolerate it when others do so. So please keep an eye out for that opportunity.
So if you do all that, what do you get? So instead of this negative, downward cycle -of shame equals silence equals ignorance which causes more shame and more silence and more ignorance – you get an upward spiral. (Diagram of empathy=connection=empowerment, etc.).
You get, empathy equals connection equals empowerment equals empathy equals connection equals empowerment for women. So, some of you may have seen this, I’ll just give you a quick chance to just run your eyes over it. I in no way mean to disrespect the person who said this. Ok, he said, he was one of the first people to speak out against the Nazi’s and he deserves heaps of respect. But I’ve put it up there because the truth is that I don’t really like it.
(Quote by Martin Niemoller. “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”)
And I don’t really like it because, even though it’s true, even though it is true – that one of the reasons we act morally is because we’re worried that if we don’t stand up for people – women who have abortions, say – that women who have abortions won’t stand up for us. That is true. But I’m looking for something morally, much bigger than that.
I’m looking for something more Lady Diana. Who in the midst of the Aids crisis, when people were seeking to shun and stigmatise and judge and cast out anybody who was thought to have the virus and gay men; she started REACHING out her hand to touch those people and to shake their hands.
I’m looking for something more like the King of Denmark, who the apocryphal story goes – when the Nazi’s came into Denmark and said “You have to brand all your Jews with a star” he said “Well, fine. But if that’s gonna happen, I’m gonna wear a star too and so is every Dane.”
I’m looking for people who wanna say “Not by my hand, not on my watch, because I am the strong one. And standing up for women against abortion shame – it is just the right thing to do.”
And so. I had an abortion. Or maybe I didn’t. But I hope by now you know, that it doesn’t matter either way…because we won’t be silent any more.