Pride vs. Shame in the Language of Rights — Sarah-Jane Stratford

There was barely time to cheer the news that a federal judge ruled the morning-after pill must be made available over the counter without a prescription when the story came in from Virginia that an amendment had passed barring insurance plans to cover abortion, even when paid for with one’s own money.


This, so soon on the heels of North Dakota’s restrictive – and unconstitutional – abortion law came to pass the same day so many progressives were cheering the momentum for marriage equality. It’s enough to make one feel like there can’t just be a solid “win” in one day – there always has to be a hit, too.


It is exciting to finally see such a groundswell of support for gay rights, with even conservatives speaking out in favor of marriage equality. It’s interesting to note that the language is often the same: an opinion is changed because someone they love – child, relative, friend – has told them that they are gay. And realizing that yes, they are still human and worthy of all the same rights and benefits as the next person, tips the balance away from prejudice and toward acceptance.


Although most of the anti-choice crowd also has a woman in their lives whom they love, the acceptance does not extend to abortion rights. Abortion just isn’t talked about in the same way – and more often than not, it isn’t talked about at all.


There are several reasons for the silence. While conservatives like to cast being gay as a “choice,” abortion, of course, really is. In particular, it’s a medical procedure a woman undergoes one day out of her life. While many days before and after might be emotionally tumultuous, it is still just one day, just one event in a woman’s life, and does not define her character.


Furthermore, abortion is private. It’s a decision made, at most, by two people. It is no one else’s business.


Being gay, on the other hand, is part of who someone is. The powerful – and correct – word associated with coming out is “pride.” Being gay doesn’t define the whole self, but it does indicate how someone loves, which is one of the most important parts of a full and happy life. Gay people used to be forced to live shadowed lives, not allowed a public existence. They were told that how they loved was something of which to be ashamed.


With the tide turning, they are claiming full personhood in a way human history hasn’t previously allowed – to history’s shame.


But this should remind us why it will always be more difficult to keep minds open on abortion. Abortion is painted as a shameful thing – just as much as being gay once was. And whereas the word “pervert” is thankfully fading into memory, the word “murder” is louder than ever.


It would help if women felt comfortable enough to talk openly about having had an abortion and let their loved ones see that they are still just as human, good, and dear as they ever were. It would help if people could then understand that abortion isn’t something “bad” women do, that it is an option some women simply need to have. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary, and it doesn’t mark a person for life.


Even under the best circumstances, however, women probably won’t want to talk openly about having had an abortion – and why should they? Besides, no one really likes to hear about someone else’s medical procedure. It can be one of the best ways to end a family gathering early. What we must try to do is remove the stigma of “shame.” There is no easy way to do that, but it must be done. The anti-choice contingent is winning with the use of emotionally charged language. We must beat them back by reminding them that it is the woman who counts, not the fetus. And if she chooses to abort, she remains the same rich, textured human being she ever was, not someone who is defined by a choice she made on one day of her life.




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