The Supreme Court of the United States has made a decision that will echo across our lives and generations to come. Every day at Whole Woman’s Health, we treat our patients with compassion, respect and dignity—and Monday the Supreme Court did the same by ruling 5-3 to strike down restrictions on Texas’ abortion clinics. We’re thrilled that justice was served and our clinics can stay open.
This decision brings to a close one of the most poignant chapters of Whole Woman’s Health history: the three years we’ve spent fighting Texas’ clinic shutdown law, HB 2. Those were three years spent trying to keep our doors open and serve our patients, while also inviting documentarians, legislators, media and the community in to meet our staff and physicians and experience the Whole Woman’s Health way. It’s been a long, difficult road, and we are all grateful for the privilege to have walked it on behalf of Texas women and families.
We are also grateful for the friends, family and communities—from McAllen to Fort Worth and all across the country—who have stayed with us every step of the way.
It would be a mistake to treat the Supreme Court ruling as the end of a story, when in fact, if we are to keep our promise to women, it must be a beginning. Too many obstacles still remain, obstacles we must dismantle if the legal right to an abortion can ever be a reality for all who may need it.
The decision removes a major barrier to abortion access in Texas and sends a powerful message to many politicians across the country who have pushed similar policies that this kind of restriction will not stand. Striking down HB 2 keeps clinics open in Texas and makes it more possible for a woman who has decided to end her pregnancy to get the care she needs.
What this decision does not do is clear the path of the roadblocks and hurdles—new and decades-old—that still stand between women and safe, legal and compassionate abortion care. It is to those many barriers that we must now turn our collective strength.
When we at Whole Woman’s Health first took on the bully politicians who passed HB 2, we were fighting bad policy. A policy that we knew would work—as designed—to shut us down and leave our patients without care.
Yet, over the last three years, this fight has become about so much more than one bad Texas law. Our struggle to defeat HB 2 by taking our case to the highest court in the land calls the question of what kind of country we want to be, and more specifically, how we will treat a woman who has decided to end her pregnancy. Will we support her or shame her? Will we treat her with respect, compassion and dignity? Or will we block her way with obstacles, judgement and callous disregard?
Abortion stigma is defined in Conceptualizing Abortion Stigma as “a negative attribute ascribed to women who seek to terminate a pregnancy that marks them, internally or externally, as inferior to ideals of womanhood.” This definition provides powerful clues to how abortion stigma functions in our society as a way to control and punish women for their decisions. The notion that a woman is “marked” by her decision is telling, as it calls to mind religious, historical and literary examples of people being ostracized for their identity, beliefs or decisions.
In the U.S., abortion stigma works to shame and blame women across all levels of human interaction: among family and friends; at work, school and church; in the media; and in the words and actions of politicians.
Abortion stigma is like gravity: we see its effects everywhere even if it’s hard to observe directly. When insurance plans that cover maternity care refuse to cover abortion, that’s stigma at work. When women who share their abortion stories are berated, harassed or targeted with violence, it’s stigma that shields and fuels their attackers. When every “good” girl in a movie or TV show who experiences an unintended pregnancy decides to continue the pregnancy, even though in reality four in 10 unintended pregnancies end in abortion, that’s stigma. The result is that we rarely hear or see stories that reflect reality, and, in this silence, shame and misinformation grow legion.
Laws like HB 2 are rooted in abortion stigma because they treat abortion providers and our patients with an absurdly high degree of surveillance and overregulation: forcing us to jump through hoops and comply with regulations that are medically unnecessary and financially debilitating.
Adding insult to injury, HB 2 and laws like it (on the books in 23 other states) are intended to create more stigma and frighten women who seek abortion care by making the procedure seem more daunting and complex than it actually is. I see this when we are forced to transform our comforting procedure rooms, designed to make women feel safe and cared for, into surgical theaters full of harsh lights and arcane medical equipment we will never need or use.
We need to start talking more about abortion, and stop blaming and shaming women who have made this personal decision. Most of us have some connection to the issue: a family member who has confided in us, a friend we drove to an appointment, a mother who ended a pregnancy before she was ready to build her family. And even without a personal connection, each of us has the opportunity, every day, to create an atmosphere of respect and support or one of silence and judgement.
When I think about the past three years, I am proud that we have held ourselves to a high standard of integrity and transparency: we opened our doors and our hearts, hoping to model what it might look like to talk about abortion without guilt or fear. We stood in the light.
Now, even as we continue to fight bad policies like HB 2, and the bully politicians who push them, I invite you to stand in the light with us. However you feel about abortion, and whatever your unique experience may be, I invite you to join me in creating an environment of love and respect for all of us, and for the many complex decisions we make about pregnancy and parenting, about our families and our futures. We can decide to end the stigma, end the shame and create communities where we all can thrive; our words and deeds can make all the difference.