Even in countries where abortion has been legalized, women face numerous barriers when attempting to access the procedure. These include provider, facility, commodity, procedural, economic, information and stigma barriers. Stigma barriers are arguably the hardest to tackle, since they reflect deep-seated cultural values and judgments. Pop culture, however, can serve as a powerful tool for reducing the societal shaming of women who seek abortions and health care providers who perform them. Here are just a few examples:
The 2014 movie Obvious Child tells the story of New York-based aspiring comedian Donna Stern, who engages in what she thinks is just a one-night stand. When it leads to an unwanted pregnancy, she decides to have an abortion. President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, describes the movie as “a major breakthrough—not just because it shows a woman deciding to have an abortion but because it shows her as a full and complete person making the serious decision to end a pregnancy and still having a full and fun life”. And Jenny Slate (who plays Donna) has commented that movie is “joyful and thoughtful and depicts a modern and authentic experience of unplanned pregnancy…Gillian Robespierre and Elizabeth Holm, who wrote this movie, assert that even while we’re fighting for our rights we can do so creatively. Activism and creative expression can go together”.
Musicians in Malawi and Ghana are collaborating with reproductive rights advocates to raise awareness about the dangers of unsafe abortion. In Malawi, Ipas, the Coalition for the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion (COPUA) and other reproductive rights advocates are working to liberalize the country’s abortion law, which only permits the procedure to save a woman’s life. In late 2014, COPUA collaborated with 11 Malawian musical artists to produce Amayi Akuferanji, an album of reggae, hip-hop and songs from other musical genres highlighting the need for women’s access to safe, legal abortion care. In Ghana, safe and legal abortions are available but still stigmatized. In response, Ipas Ghana and the Musicians Union of Ghana (MUSIGA) are organizing workshops that explore ways to infuse reproductive rights into song lyrics. Both initiatives highlight how musicians can use their creative skills and popular influence to raise awareness through music.
Television & Radio
In Nicaragua, the feminist organization Puntos de Encuentro is using media to promote gender equality and combat discrimination and violence. The organization has produced 80+ episodes of the soap opera Sexto Sentido, which addresses taboo topics such as abortion, homophobia and sexual violence. The show boasts a large viewership in Nicaragua and is also broadcast in Bolivia, Mexico and the U.S. Punto de Encuentro’s youth radio show, DKY FM, touches on similarly controversial topics, aiming to modify the attitudes of and increase communication among young people in Nicaragua on these topics.
These examples highlight just some of the ways in which pop culture can challenge the stigma that currently surrounds abortion. But we need more films, songs, televisions shows, radio programs, etc. that normalize abortion. Without them, abortion stigma will continue to shame and silence women, delaying or even preventing them from exercising their legal right to access such health care services.