Research on Stigmatization, Gender, Intensive Motherhood, and the Ideal Mother, Motherhood and Abortion

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Largely credited with introducing “stigma” into sociology, Goffman (1963) defines the term as a visible or invisible trait that departs from “the ordinary and the usual” and marks someone as deviant. The stigmatized individual is then devalued in social interactions, as their identity shifts in the eyes of society. Link and Phelan (2001) expound upon this idea, by describing the four consecutive social processes through which stigmatization occurs. Human differences are first distinguished and labeled, after which negative stereotypes are linked to the individuals who embody or enact the undesirable characteristics, by evoking dominant cultural beliefs as the scaffold. In the third step, the marked persons are placed in distinct categories to create an ingroup and outgroup. Finally, the labeled persons experience status loss and discrimination. However, Herek (2009) further builds upon the stigma literature by disentangling the three manifestations of stigma: internalized, felt, and enacted. Internalized stigma results from an individual’s personal acceptance of the stigma as part of one’s self concept and value system. Felt stigma refers to assessments of other’s attitudes and expectations of how actions could ensue as a result of those attitudes. Finally, enacted stigma encompasses overt negative actions such as hate crimes, discrimination, abuse, or expressions of disgust (Crocker et al. 1998; Crockrill & Nack 2012).

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The concept of stigmatization has been applied in the study of various realms, from mental illness (Kleinman et al. 1995) to HIV/AIDS (Parker & Aggleton 2003; Castro & Farmer 2005; Ogden & Nyblade 2005) to cancer (Sontag 1978) and beyond. More recently, stigma literature has brought to bear the ways women who seek abortions experience stigma in all of its manifestations. Some of this is informed by Schur’s (1983) conceptualization of women and “femaleness” being labeled as deviant through the stigmatization of a wide range of behaviors. Schur posits that this is manifest in the stigmatization of lesbianism, sexual harassment and rape victimization, sex work, anorexia, and—notably—abortion. Luker (1984) develops this latter point by defining abortion stigma as rooted in narrow, gender specific archetypes, including archetypal constructs of femininity, procreative female sexuality, and women’s innate desires to mother (Kumar et al. 2009, Cockrill & Nack 2012). While there are many ways to transgress these archetypes throughout a woman’s life—for instance through premarital sex, promiscuity, the use of birth control, being childless, et cetera—abortion seems to simultaneously signal multiple transgressions. Abortion denotes a woman’s participation in non-procreative sex, a lack of desire to become a mother, a lack of maternal bonding (to an unborn fetus), and other behaviors and beliefs considered counter to the ideals of femininity (Kumar et al. 2009; Cockrill & Nack 2012).

In fact, Nack (2002) found that rigid gender norms for sexuality constructs two “tribes” of women. One tribe encompasses the “good” women—the virginal girls, the wives, the mothers—and the other defines the “bad girls and fallen women.” Nack describes this latter tribe as women who have been socially devalued for defying expectations of feminine “goodness” in regard to sexuality and motherhood. Perhaps most notably, the behaviors that place women in the camp of fallen women, such as premarital or nonprocreative sex, are framed as choices, which then rationalizes the stigma as a deserving consequence for bad behavior (Goffman 1963; Nack 2002; Cockrill & Nack 2012). Hence, Kumar (2009) defines 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.” More specifically, they hypothesize that abortion challenges three prevailing ideas about womanhood: female sexuality solely for procreation, the inevitability of motherhood, and instinctual nurturing (Kumar 2009). Due to these transgressions, the following negative stereotypes are applied to women who choose to terminate pregnancies. Such women are assumed to be low income and without political influence, irresponsible (i.e. did not use contraception properly or could not abstain from sex), and selfishly expect others to pay for their own poor choices (Beckmann 2016). Cockrill & Nack (2012) applied Herek’s (2009) three-part model of stigma to women who have had abortions, and found that women manage the different manifestations of stigma intrapersonally by “managing the damaged self,” while maintaining a good reputation and managing a damaged reputation.

Furthermore, although the political discourse on abortion tends to be discussed in regard to definitions of life and the rights of the fetus, Beckman (2016) instead argues that the controversy lies in opposing definitions of womanhood and the importance of motherhood. More specifically, she argues that those who oppose access to abortion view it as a threat to morality, social cohesion, and motherhood (Beckman 2016; Harvey et al 1998). Luker (1986) describes this debate as a referendum on the place and meaning of motherhood, with abortion stripping “the veil of sanctity from motherhood.” By choosing to terminate a pregnancy for any reason, a woman is rendering something—a career, education, financial stability—as more important than motherhood, thus demoting motherhood from a sacred calling to merely a job (Luker 1986).

Gender, Intensive Motherhood, and the Ideal Mother

As such, an examination of abortion stigma is incomplete without a focus on motherhood and the complex, multifaceted place it holds in society. Despite radical shifts in gender norms in the past several decades, particularly in regard to education and the workplace, motherhood continues to be the cornerstone of adult femininity and the role of mothering is still central to definitions of being a woman (Rosemary 2003; Nakano Glenn 1994; Russo 1976). Oakley (1986) referred to this phenomenon as the “contemporary myth of motherhood,” which rests upon three chief beliefs: all women need to be mothers, all mothers need their children, and all children need their mothers. Others have referenced the widely held belief that women must eventually become mothers to reach adulthood as “compulsory motherhood” (e.g. Collins 2005) or “imperative motherhood” (e.g. Remennick, 2000). Despite the range of descriptive terms, they all point to the overarching treatment of all postpubescent women as potentially pregnant or one-day-mothers (Malacrida & Boulton, 2012) and the belief that motherhood is the primary means for identity and status attainment for women.

Weaving together this narrative is the idealized model of motherhood. This mythical ideal mother is the selfless, nurturing woman who will sacrifice herself and all competing goals in order to intensively care for her child (Collins 2005; Hays 1996). Despite being derived from the white middle-class, this model has been projected as natural, universal, and the image to which all women should aspire (Glenn 2016). Feminist scholars have engaged in debunking these claims by arguing that rather than a natural state of affairs, the idealized motherhood is a product of extensive instruction for “good mothering” as well as monitoring and reprimanding for “bad mothering” (Badinter 1981; Abramowitz 1996; Arnup 1994; Margolis 2001; Ladd-Taylor and Umansky 1998; Reid, Greaves, and Poole 2008; Malacrida & Boulton 2012; Payne 2006). Further, given the pervasive conflation of “woman” and “mother,” this instruction and surveillance extends beyond childrearing to encompass pregnancy, childbirth, early infant bonding, and even non-pregnant postpubescent women (Malacrida & Boulton 2012; Payne 2006; Wall 2001; Rapp 1999). For instance, doctors are instructed to treat post-pubescent young women as potentially pregnant by encouraging them to take folic acid supplements, avoid drinking and smoking, and maintain a “healthy weight” (Malacrida & Boulton; Payne 2006). Through the lenses of intensive mothering and imperative motherhood, both the ideal mother and the ideal potentially pregnant female are selfless women who have abandoned or are prepared to abandon their former selfish, immature selves to achieve true womanhood (Malacrida & Boulton 2012).

Motherhood and Abortion

Only a handful of studies address abortion within the framework of motherhood—though primarily indirectly—and none has done so in the context of stigma management. However, they provide important insight that inform this study. As briefly aforementioned, Kristin Luker (1984) conducted her famous study on pro-life and pro-choice activists in the early 1980’s to elucidate the complex relationship between idealized motherhood and abortion controversy. She found that women’s positions on either side of the abortion battle were indeed rooted in different beliefs about motherhood. Pro-choice women in her study believed that motherhood is one of many roles, and a woman should not be bound by her biology. Alternatively, pro-life women activists held the conviction that women are bound by their biological roles. Luker framed the abortion battle among women as “feminists” versus “housewives.” She defined these two types of women as mutually exclusive: women who either are committed to traditional female roles of wife, mother, and homemaker or women who seek education, class status, and careers. Luker discussed these two types of women as being divided by class, education, and religion, with the pro-life camp having lower incomes and education levels but higher levels of religiosity, and vice versa for pro-choice women.

While this study has been formative to the corpus of work on abortion and motherhood, it remains largely uncontested. Are the ideologies of pro-life and pro-choice women really so discrete and contradictory—especially over 30 years later? Furthermore, while this characterizes activists on the abortion debate, this study does not speak to the ideologies of ordinary women who choose abortions for personal reasons, independent from the wider political discourse. Sachdev (1993) thus builds on Luker’s work through in-depth interviews with young Canadian White women who had recently had abortions. More than one in 6 respondents cited their reasons to abort as it being “best for the child,” due to financial and other practical restraints on their “fantasy of motherhood.” Other studies add support to the idea that the expectations of motherhood have a salient role in abortion decisions, with a high proportion of women citing their obligation to their current children as a primary reason for terminating a pregnancy (Henshaw & Van Vort 1992; Jones et al 2002; Finer et al 2005). Most recently, Jones et al (2008) found that a large proportion of the women in the sample sought abortions because of the belief children are entitled to a stable, financially secure family which gives them a high level of care and attention.

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