Americans across the ideological spectrum share the fundamentally misinformed belief that abortion is an “infrequent and risky” procedure, according to a report by Vox's Sarah Kliff. On February 29, Kliff highlighted data from a new Vox poll that found most Americans significantly “overestimate the safety risks for women who have abortions” and underestimate the prevalence of abortion procedures. These “misperceptions,” Kliff wrote, “help set the stage for the most recent wave of abortion restrictions,” including Texas' HB 2 law regulating abortion clinics, which will be argued before the Supreme Court on March 2.
The Vox poll surveyed 1,060 registered voters on their beliefs and opinions about abortion and found “Twenty-seven percent of Americans think fewer than 10 percent of women will have an abortion in their lifetime,” while up to “51 percent say it's fewer than 20 percent” of women. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 30 percent of women by age 45 will have an abortion. Kliff noted that “More educated and higher-income Americans are especially likely to believe that abortion is rare,” while “groups of Americans that have the highest abortion rates -- low-income and less educated women -- tend to more accurately guess the prevalence of abortion.”
The data reflected similar misunderstandings about the safety of abortion procedures. As Kliff explained, “four out of five poll respondents (80 percent) said that childbirth was safer or 'about as safe' as abortion,” but "[i]n actuality, bearing a child causes more serious complications and deaths for mothers than abortion does." Researchers have found that women were about “14 times more likely to die” from childbirth than from an abortion in the U.S. Notably, this inaccurate perception was found in respondents who labeled themselves both pro-life (88 percent) and pro-choice (67 percent).
What explains the skewed perception Americans have of abortion's frequency and safety? Kliff offered the influence of pop culture and the lack of discussion about abortions, largely a result of abortion stigma, as two possible factors.
Movies and TV have greatly contributed to the spread of misinformation about abortion. Kliff highlighted this point, quoting Julia Reticker-Flynn of the 1 in 3 Campaign, who said, “when abortion is shown on television, it's often a life-threatening procedure or a very extreme case.” Research from Gretchen Sisson and Katrina Kimport of Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health shows that, over several decades, TV and movies have overly associated abortion with maternal death. Additional research by Sisson and Kimport also found that TV shows have rarely shown women of color accessing abortion care and have inaccurately reflected the socio-economic diversity of women who seek abortions.
Abortion stigma also no doubt stifles conversation about abortion. The Vox poll found that only 37 percent of respondents had “ever talked with someone about the experience of having an abortion or the decision to have one.” Kliff pointed out that “abortion rarely gets discussed, so it seems shadowy and unknown” and concluded that “a better understanding of the prevalence of abortion might normalize the experience and reduce the stigma around abortion.”
Challenging abortion stigma by encouraging greater public conversation is not new to reproductive health advocates. Organizations like Sea Change and #ShoutYourAbortion encourage women to speak out about their experiences with abortion through a variety of mediums.
This strategy has also found its way to the Supreme Court. The court will hear oral arguments in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt -- a case that could determine the constitutionality of anti-choice restrictions on abortion access. Prior to oral arguments, hundreds of women submitted amicus briefs sharing their abortion stories to help prove that getting an abortion is an “absolutely normal experience.” Guardian columnist Lucia Graves emphasized the significance of these briefs and the importance of continuing to challenge abortion stigma wherever possible:
There are so many reasons telling these stories matters: it's about making women feel heard, feel less alone and about normalizing what is absolutely a normal experience. But it's also about our country's current and future laws that might or might not allow other women to make the same decisions.