Shame And Stigma: What A 3-Minute Video Can Teach Us About Anti-Choice Media

Emily Letts on CNN

Part of the past success of the anti-choice movement has been using the media to convince Americans that abortion is gross and dangerous. As Amanda Marcotte has explained, the anti-choice movement loves to focus particularly on third-trimester abortions, “because they are especially disgusting”:

...and therefore make a good cudgel to attack all abortion rights. And since they are so emotionally fraught, they have a great deal of appeal to the ghouls that populate the anti-choice movement, the ones who spend obscene percentages of their lives dwelling on graphic pictures of dead fetuses.

But third-trimester procedures are only about one percent of abortions performed in the US; the overwhelming majority -- 90 percent -- occur during the first trimester, and are significantly safer and easier medical procedures. Most women can take a simple drug; if they opt for surgery, the procedure takes just a few minutes.

But conservative media and anti-choice activists have dominated the conversation about abortion, allowing myths, misinformation, and stigma to perpetuate. 

This damaging deficit of accurate information in the media prompted Emily Letts, an abortion counselor, to film her own first-trimester abortion and post the video online. As she explained in an opinion piece for Cosmopolitan, the misinformation about abortion has overwhelmed the reality, and shame and fear of the procedure makes finding the facts more difficult:

I searched the Internet, and I couldn't find a video of an actual surgical procedure in the clinic that focused on the woman's experience. We talk about abortion so much and yet no one really knows what it actually looks like. A first trimester abortion takes three to five minutes. It is safer than giving birth. There is no cutting, and risk of infertility is less than 1 percent. Yet women come into the clinic all the time terrified that they are going to be cut open, convinced that they won't be able to have kids after the abortion. The misinformation is amazing, but think about it: They are still willing to sacrifice these things because they know that they can't carry the child at this moment.

Posting a video about your abortion may seem provocative. But the video is not graphic or scary. It shows Letts' face as she softly hums to herself during the five minute procedure, quietly and calmly, and shows her speaking to the camera before and after the procedure about how she's feeling. At the end, a month after the abortion, she says she knows that it was the right choice for her, and that she wanted to share her story.

After Letts released the video of her abortion, Fox News launched a series of personal attacks on the 25-year-old, going so far as to question her mental stability. Because she tried to help other women who find themselves in similar difficult situations by accurately documenting her own personal experience, Fox's The Five described her actions as everything from a publicity stunt to genocide. Later the same night, Fox host Andrea Tantaros called her “disturbed,” while Sean Hannity attacked her need for an abortion, repeatedly suggesting she could have just used birth control, and called the video “sick.” Neither The Five nor Hannity actually played the full video for their viewers, which is just over three minutes long.

Letts was trying to help combat the misinformation spread by Fox News and conservative media every day about abortion, so it's unsurprising that they reacted with personal attacks on her. Conservative media have even helped manipulate mainstream journalists into parroting anti-choice lies, and have played a role in shaming women who have abortions or who support those who do. 

Bill O'Reilly has threatened to publicly shame opponents of legislation that would criminalize abortion. Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis has been demonized by conservative media for standing up against Texas legislation that shut down women's health clinics and limited abortion rights. Anti-abortion activist and video hack Lila Rose has made perpetuating abortion stigma her full-time job; in 2011, Rose released heavily edited videos which deceptively portrayed practices at Planned Parenthood clinics, and defended her manipulation and falsification of evidence as “tactics” against the “genocide” of abortion. She was supported and promoted on The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity's America, The Glenn Beck Show, and The Laura Ingraham Show.

A University of California study found that the vast majority of women who have abortions don't regret it, but instead feel relieved. Even among women who did have negative emotions about the experience, 80 percent felt that the abortion was the right choice for them. But as ThinkProgress has previously noted, despite these statistics, many women who have abortions feel unable to talk about the experience. A Guttmacher Institute study found out why: women who have abortions worry about judgment, isolation, self-judgment, and “community condemnation.”

When Fox News shouts down a woman's attempt to show her personal abortion experience and compares it to genocide, it's no surprise so many women fear that judgment.

But when these women stay silent out of fear, it perpetuates a cycle in which others stay misinformed -- allowing the fear, judgment, and misinformation of right-wing activists and conservative media to dominate. Instead of talking about personal, accurate stories, women are left with fictional ones -- which tend to portray abortion as deadly for the mother, even though death occurs only in 0.0006 percent of all legal surgical abortions.

The stigma around abortion will continue to be desperately perpetuated by conservative media, who have again proven themselves more interested in pushing lies about safe procedures rather than truthfully informing women who need or choose to have one. But this time, maybe Letts' video can help break through the misinformation and lies.

1 in 3 women will have an abortion at some point in their lifetime; isn't it time we all started to listen?