Abortion Shaming: What the law does and doesn’t do

By Dr Leslie Cannold
Woman wearing t-shirt with slogan: "Abortion: A Fact of Life. Let's End the Stigma"

By Dr Leslie Cannold. This piece is part of our September focus on Women’s Rights. See all of this month’s articles here.

A number of years ago I joined with thousands of activists and concerned citizens to change abortion law in Victoria. After more than 143 years, and after a long political fight, the crime of abortion was repealed from the Victorian Crimes Act 1958.

Suddenly and miraculously, one of the most common and – according to the World Health Organization – safest medical procedures was no longer shrouded in legal uncertainty.

Suddenly, the one in three Australian women who have an abortion in their lifetime and the medical practitioners who provide them safe services – if they were lucky enough to live in Victoria – were no longer tainted as criminals.

I’m no longer convinced that changing the law is enough to destroy the stigma and shaming that surrounds abortion.

Before 24 weeks pregnancy, abortion is now regulated like any other medical procedure in Victoria. That is, as a private medical matter between an informed and consenting woman and her medical practitioner.

We rejoiced. Not only had we proven what women could achieve when we united in a common cause, but we had joined an elite group of women in the world. The very few deemed by the laws of their country as full moral agents whose decisions about their own bodies and lives  – even on “important” matters where female autonomy is typically cast aside – were entitled to respect.

Only in the ACT and Victoria have Australian women been affirmed in this way. In contrast, near identical provisions to those repealed from the Victorian Crimes Act in 2008 remain in the NSW and QLD criminal law.

Occassionally, such provisions are used against abortion service providers and women who have abortions.

For instance, just two years ago, a 21-year-old woman sat in the dock in a Cairns courtroom, along with her 22-year-old partner, for the crime of abortion. The couple were acquitted but not before they were forced to move house to escape harassment, and the young woman was moved to tears in a trial that paraded her gynaecological history – including the heaviness or lightness of her periods – in open court.

I still believe that removal of abortion from the criminal statutes of every state in this country is a first priority for state-based activist groups. It should also be the priority of the rare state and national political decision-maker willing to put their head above the parapet to introduce much needed reforms and advocate to secure women’s reproductive freedoms.

But I’m no longer convinced that changing the law is enough to destroy the stigma and shaming that surrounds abortion. Indeed, it may be that criminal sanctions on abortion don’t cause abortion shaming and stigma, but are one of the noxious downstream consequences of shaming and stigma.

This speculation derives from the Victorian experience where the repeal of abortion from the criminal law has changed little on the service-provision front.

Silence results in ignorance, which leads to oppressive laws and policy that in turn nurtures shame, more silence and more ignorance in a downward regressive spiral.

Abortion continues to be the medical procedure that dare not speak its name. With few exceptions, the media remains mum on women’s lack of access to services in rural and regional areas, the growing number of Catholic Church run “public” hospitals that take public money but won’t provide female patients with fertility interventions including abortion, and the misleading and deception of women by pro-life “counseling” agencies.

In the few instances where pro-choice views are aired they are ritually described as “controversial” or uncomfortably “strong” in ways that pro-life judgments – usually expressed by unmarried and supposedly celibate male clergy – are not.

The seeming need the media has to frame such majority views in this way – and by so doing apologise for them – may be the consequence of the silence imposed by shame. This is because although 81 per cent of Australians support a right to choose, and the majority of religious Australians support reproductive choice, most Australians seem unaware of these facts. Australians also don’t realise that one in three of the women around them will have had an abortion.

…it is the shame stokers who are reviled in our community, not women who resolve their problem pregnancies through abortion.

Shame evokes fear – the fear of disconnection. Humans want to stay connected and shame, by making us anxious that speaking out will see us judged and shunned, keeps us silent. Silence results in ignorance, which leads to oppressive laws and policy that in turn nurtures shame, more silence and more ignorance in a downward regressive spiral.

If shame is the fertiliser rather than the fruit of repressive abortion laws and policies, normalising the procedure may be the key to delivering women much needed improvements in quality, access to and affordability of safe abortion services.

This requires reformers to attack the shame directly, after the work of repealing abortion from the criminal law is done.

So how can this be done? Combating shame means breaking the shame cycle. Already this process has begun with women around the world resisting shame by breaking their silence about abortion in written and video testimonies on sites like 1in3campaign, Exhaleprovoice and 45millionvoices.

If a community wants such efforts to succeed, individuals in it must stand up to be counted. Shame makes women fear that if they tell their abortion stories they will be pitied, demeaned, judged or shunned. Interventions that broadcast to women a disdain and intolerance for abortion shaming – just as we scorn racial slurs and Jewish jokes – supports the fledgling abortion speak-out movement by letting women know they are not alone.

In Melbourne on 30 September, and soon in Canberra and Sydney, women and men will dance against shame in “Let’s End the Stigma” Flashmobs. It is hoped that the flashmob concept will continue to “go viral”, with such actions springing up in most Australian cities and towns.

An online pledge opportunity will also be launched in 30 September for those keen to put their rejection of abortion-shaming – and their intolerance those who seek to shame women who have abortions – on the record.

Both the Flashmob and the Pledge are public ways the public can reassure women that the public’s tolerance of abortion-shaming is over. Such reassurance is essential for women made fearful from years of abortion shaming. The majority must let women know, early and often, that it is the shame stokers who are reviled in our community, not women who resolve their problem pregnancies through abortion.

Dr Leslie Cannold was the 2011 Australian Humanist of the Year and in her role as a public commentator and speaker, is oft cited as one of Australia’s most influential thinkers. She is President of Reproductive Choice Australia, which is campaigning against abortion shaming and stigma.


  • Debbie Garratt

    It is shameful that Australia’s considers Cannold one of its most influential thinkers when she is responsible for this offensive event… Dancing in the streets over abortion… An event in a womans life that is not ‘routine’ however Cannold tries to dress it up, an event that has left many thousands of women with serious and prolonged mental health problems, an event that most women say they don’t want. Even within Cannold’s own links above, there are stories of unwanted, coerced abortion, with one woman saying.. ‘I’m glad I had the choice even though I didn’t feel like I had one’. What kind of dissonance is this denial of the reality of women’s lived experiences creating? The shame is that Cannold and other abortion advocates with heavy emotional investments in abortion being good for women, given how many they’ve encouraged, continues to deny the evidence. While they are dancing in the streets, women continue to suffer in a silence of abortion advocate’s creation, one where women are not allowed to dissent. It is time we normalised real choices… Ones where women are given genuine and supported options to continue a pregnancy rather than being forced to choose between their unborn and full participation in their social and professional worlds.

    • Meg

      You are saying that there should be real choice. Choice is not a “yes, but” thing which your statement about continuing pregnancy as THE choice implies. Choice should include to terminate or continue the pregnancy not one or the other and with whatever choice made be supported fully by quality counselling services as part of that decision not to prevent either decision being made.
      The choice to have an abortion is not about lifestyle and career vs. having a child it is more complex than that. All decisions aroun termination, contraception and having a baby should be supported. Unfortunately one of these is not like the others.

  • John

    I consider how many times I have heard people say “abortion is one of the hardest decisions a woman may have to make in her life”. Imagine my horror to find out that some wierd individuals like Ms Cannold want to trivialise abortion and have a dance about it.
    The stigma of abortion will never end because the world is waking up to the facts now. The fact that abortion ends an innocent baby’s life in the harshest way. The fact that post-abortive woman have much higher rates of substance abuse, are at higher risk of breast cancer and birth or pregnancy complications. The fact that abortion is never required for any situation, even complications in pregnancy.
    So go ahead, Ms Cannold. Thrust abortion into the spotlight. I can guarantee you that that’s the last place abortion providers, as well as post-abortive women, want to be.

    • Dawn

      A baby is a specific development stage, unless you want to argue that people are killing 3 month old kids?

      “The fact that post-abortive woman have much higher rates of substance abuse, are at higher risk of breast cancer and birth or pregnancy complications.”

      A: A woman who is more likely to not have access to healthcare in the form of contraception is more likely to have substance abuse, the substance issue has nothing to do with the abortion and everything to do with why she needs it, you are making a false correlation.

      B: It has been proven that women are NOT at higher risk for breast cancer after an abortion. This claim is an outright lie that has no basis.

      C: Again, birth or pregnancy complications claims are outright lies, the only likely “evidence” is that women who need abortions due to a failed wanted pregnancy are likely to have further issues due to the reason WHY they needed the abortion in the first place.

      “The fact that abortion is never required for any situation, even complications in pregnancy.”

      Oh really: http://www.channel4.com/news/woman-dies-in-ireland-after-abortion-refused

      In short, John, you are uninformed, ignorant and proof of why destigmatisation is needed, to shine a light on the complete crap you and other “pro-lifers” talk about it.

  • Sonja

    “More complex than that”… for many iwomen it is exactly that, with the lack of support and resources being the primary reason why women abort. Ms Cannold has no right to dance in celebration of abortion if it hurts just one woman who has been through it.
    It is obvious that Ms Cannold chooses to ignore the most extensive research to date, which shows an 81% increased risk of negative psychological impacts for women who choose abortion over giving birth.

    This campaign is completely out of touch with the needs of women and begs the question of whether Ms Cannold’s passion for abortion overshadows the women she claims to advocate for?

  • Debbie Garratt

    Meg, true choice only exists in the presence of more than one genuine option. The stories of many women seeking and having abortions are often tragic and it can be easy to see why many feel like they have no choice but abortion.. but there’s the thing … no choice but abortion.

    Rather than working toward more ‘normalising’ of abortion or dancing in the streets, or naming and shaming those who speak against abortion.. INCLUDING women who have had abortions, perhaps it is time to hear these women. It is absolutely wrong that a woman must make a choice between having her child or staying at university, or that she be bullied by a partner or a parent into something she may not really want, or that she be guilted into aborting a wanted but less than perfect baby by her family… this list could go on forever.

    When Cannold makes statements that she believes that women who experience abortion negatively are only suffering from ‘religious guilt’, as though there can never be a ‘real’ reason for rejecting abortion, she is denying all those women their own stories.. their right to tell it, their right to be heard.

    Cannold suggests that it is only people who advocate for abortion who truly care about women, yet is determined to dismiss the evidence that abortion can indeed be harmful and coerced, and worse, to dismiss and ridicule those women who have as much a right to a voice as she does. Abortion advocates do not have a monopoly on truth or on caring for women. When the only strategy that can be deployed by abortion advocates, in the face of the evidence, is to attempt to undermine individuals on religious grounds or as ‘anti-choice’, it only serves to prove the weakness of their position.

    This flash mob is such an insult to all those who suffer after abortion. Telling women who have suffered that they cannot speak, that their stories don’t matter is about as shameful a strategy as you could find. When Reproductive Choice Australia starts its list, I wonder how much they will care about the stories behind the people who choose to speak up and let other women know the possibilities.. that abortion isn’t always the quick fix that is promised.

  • Sally

    First line is a lie so Im not reading the rest, the law passed by just a few votes whom were heavily coerced onto people that didnt want to vote for Abortion Law Reform in Vic which says you can with a Dr’s consent for any physiological or social reason abort a baby up to the full term of 9 months…….if the public actually knew this they would be disgusted!

    And now young girls want to dance about it?>???????

  • Debbie Garratt

    I am so glad Cannold linked to stories of post abortive women.. but has she actually read them? The vast majority, on every site she linked, and every site linked from it are from grieving suffering women, NOT women celebrating and being thankful for their abortions.

    The grief they experience is real, yet Cannold wants to dismiss it as religious guilting? These are stories of coercion, both subtle and overt, not stories that will be changed by Reproductive Choice Australia dancing in the streets and naming and shaming people who speak about the significant NON choice so many women experience.

  • Pingback: Let’s “end the silence” around the ethics of abortion. | LifeChoice()

  • Chris Johnson

    Interesting to see all the comments so far have been anti-choice and seek to continue the abortion shaming of women.
    This man supports choice and is determined to that abortion should be brought out of the shadows and acknowledged as a positive choice.
    Women should not feel shamed for making a choice about their own reproduction.
    I will be dancing on September 30 – and will dance again – to reassure women that they do not need to feel shame.

  • Tadgh K Bird

    I’m sorry, but I think as a society, we should be thankful for legalised abortions. It sounds crude and harsh – but that’s only because of the perceived image of ending a ‘life’ – but there are many places where abortion is illegal, even if the mother’s life is at risk.

    People shouldn’t feel shame for having terminations. We have a state care system which is far from perfect. I have heard people say against abortion, “Well, there’s plenty of people out there who will adopt”. Well if that is true, why are there still many children and teenagers in care? Or do you mean that there are plenty of people willing to adopt, as long as they’re still babies?

    And I’m sorry, but I feel it’s far better to have an abortion than to have a baby you cannot fully love, care, or provide for. Of course it’s all down to planning – safe-sex, having a baby when you’re ready, etc, but accidents happen. And perhaps people should have to pay for their mistakes – but a baby shouldn’t be that price – where is the morality in making two lives suffer for a longer period of time to make “amends”?

    I also think men need to be educated on things like terminations in our education systems, and I think they need to be told how it happens, and the effects it can have (and I am a man writing this). Many men are totally ignorant when it comes to the subject… While it is undoubtedly a woman’s choice, I think if men were a little more aware, women would have more support and we’d also defeat some of the stigma and preconceived ideas.

    Just my thoughts, anyway.

  • Debbie Garratt

    Chris, read some of the stories Cannold links to. These are not stories of choice, and there is nothing shameful in them. Abortion shaming is a fabrication of abortion advocates. Cannold has publicly stated that she is only concerned about hearing the voices of women who will speak positively about their abortions, even though her own links testify to the number of women who don’t. Many of those who speak against abortion have had abortions. Why should they be silenced or shamed out of telling their stories?

  • Leslie Cannold

    Just thought I’d let people who have become distressed by the comments in this section that Debbie Garratt is an Australian anti-choice activist. Just google her name and the word “pro-life” and you’ll find her all over the web. Not only has she not disclosed her identity and long history of anti-choice activism here, but several years ago she fought legislation that would have required pro-life “counselling” organisations to transparently advertise themselves to women. You can find the report here. http://bit.ly/QGVIa8 Search for “Mrs Deborah Garratt” for her contributions. Debbie is a great example of why the majority needs to recognise shame-stoking for the damage it does, and take part in Reproductive Choice Australia’s “Let’s End the Stigma” activities to change the conversation. Don’t feed the trolls. Take action. A chance to take the pledge against abortion stigma will be available at ReproductiveChoiceAustralia.org.au website from 30 September 2012. Flashmobs are also being organised in the ACT and Sydney. Get on board.

  • Debbie Garratt

    Leslie, at no time have I attempted to undermine your message by ‘googling’ your associations, or past activities, yet you seem intent on doing only this at every opportunity, instead of addressing the issues and evidence that I raise. You have been clear about your proposed strategy that when you can’t actually rationally counter the truth, you resort to finding links to ‘anti-choice or religious activities and use these to discredit individuals. People aren’t stupid. Address the issues.

    If you are intent on keeping all discussion closed on the topic, then state that intention. I have kept no secrets and none of my activities, personal or professional change the stories of post abortive women who are suffering. You have publicly stated that if any post abortive woman comes forward with a negative story it would shame other women. This is not in keeping with a truly feminist perspective that honours the stories of every woman. We have had numerous calls and contacts from post abortive women who are neither saddened nor regretful of their abortions, and who are offended at your current campaign. It is offensive to them that your campaign trivialises what was for them a painful and difficult decision.

    If you are truly about banishing shame and stigma, I suggest you look at the shame you are generating for this group of women who don’t see their abortions as something to celebrate.

    Our organisation has always heard, acknowledged and respected the stories of any woman or man experiencing abortion, without dismissing, ridiculing or judging them, yet you continue to fabricate this idea of shaming.

    Perhaps this is more of a projection issue?

  • Sonja

    …. play the ball, Leslie. Debbie Garratt relies on research and anecdotal evidence, rather than the personal smears you seem to resort to, all too often. I would love to see a debate between the two of you, where you actually address the issues Debbie raises!
    “Don’t feed the trolls”!!?? Thats the best you have to offer women??

  • Andrew Smith

    Is this really the best that we get as a response from the mighty Leslie Cannold? If you can only attack the messenger instead of addressing with the issues that have been raise, then you’re obviously in a very weak position with not a leg to stand on. I’m somewhat shocked at how weak the pro-abortion argument actually is.

  • Esther Levi

    whatever, even if I’ve had an abortion, I’m definitely not going to be fkn dancing about it

  • dani

    i’m not ashamed to say that i had an abortion and, john, it was NOT a tough decision – it wasn’t undertaken lightly but it was absolutely the best thing for myself and my partner at the time. and that’s been the case for every woman i know who has had one. i’ve had no psychological or physical issues from it and have gone on to be a mother. obviously it’s not the best form of contraception and should not be seen as such (surgery is still surgery after all, despite it being so safe) but why shouldn’t women dance in the street to try to remove the stigma? and andrew smith – it’s not ‘pro abortion’ (as you’ll note in my preceding sentence) – it’s pro choice. perhaps if it was you (ha!) or your daughter, you’d be glad that this battle has been fought and won.