The way our society uses the word “shaming” is complicated. In this post I discuss three different types of shaming and how they relate to abortion.
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes.
My views on this topic are the kind that if you only get a snippet of it out of context, there are many ways to misunderstand it. I don’t think my view is offensive, but my view improperly understood is definitely offensive several times over. It’s always good to read someone’s entire explanation instead of just part of it, but there are some topics where that’s more essential than others. This is one of the more essential cases. If you just want to skim, or you are not committed to trying to understand what my view actually is, then please don’t read this.
Last week I initiated an internet discussion among pro-life and pro-choice people about the best word to use for somebody who does abortions. An online acquaintance of mine Dr. Leah Torres joined our discussion to give her opinions, coming from somebody who performs abortions as a part of her OB/GYN practice.
After going back and forth a bit, I came to believe that “abortion practitioner” does the best job of not being rude and also not removing all stigma from abortion. You can read why Leah doesn’t want there to be any stigma attached to abortion here and my response here.
It was in Leah’s final comment in that thread that caused me to do some thinking on another word that started getting used a lot: shaming.
Here are the most relevant parts of Leah’s comment on shaming:
Thank you for the more detailed clarification, Josh. I would not doubt that you are against violent acts, just as I am. However I was referring to the stigmatization of abortion as that which is declaring it as morally wrong which results in shaming others. [Being] shamed results in silence. Being silenced results in oppression. Being oppressed is to incur violence in a variety of ways systematically. It is not OK for someone to call me a “murderer” because that is a) untrue b) stigmatizing my profession c) endangers my safety given the emotional response invoked by such a label. …
Performing abortions is a moral act. Having an abortion is done with moral dignity. I encourage you to try to see it from the pregnant person’s perspective. You must start there. When you are able to step into their world, you may have more compassion and less desire to stigmatize than you realize. …
Thank you for including me in this discussion. I look forward to future opportunities to participate. =)
This is my response.
Yeah, this is helpful Leah. We’ve definitely found a lot of common ground, and the point where our ideas are consistently “butting heads” comes down to our differing views of the abortion act itself. I believe it is morally impermissible because it is an act of direct killing, and you believe that abortion is not merely morally neutral, but an act with “moral dignity.” So on the single question of whether election abortion is a moral act, we’re predictably on different planets.
Note that I’m describing where we currently are. That could of course change one day. You or I could come to think differently about abortion if we’re both open-minded, avoiding confirmation bias, and fairly weighing the arguments against each other. But at this point, we think very differently on that question.
And that disagreement is causing us to think differently about stigma and shame.
I’ve written a little about what I think about “stigma,” so now for clarity sake, let me talk a little bit about the word “shame.” I think that word is used by our society to describe a huge spectrum, and there are definitely some senses of shame that I don’t think should be felt by post-abortive people. I’ll separate my comments between three different kinds of shame:
- Personally felt shame;
- Acts of public shaming by person A directed at person B;
- Acts of private shaming by person A directed at person B.
Personally Felt Shame
UPDATE: As a few commenters have noted, a better word for this would be “guilt.” But since I see a lot of people using the word “shame” in this context, I’ll comment on it to differentiate it from the other two categories below.
It’s possible for people to feel shame even if nobody else is “shaming” them. Imagine a cocaine addict who keeps using but regrets it afterwards. It could be that nobody in the world besides him knows that he’s hurting himself and breaking the law, but he still feels some level of shame. I would submit that some level of shame like that is appropriate in that case. This kind of shame is connected to conscience, and it’s good for people’s consciences to be pricked for a few reasons.
- First, that shame can cause them to get morally better. The thief who feels shame afterwards is more likely to get morally better (if he doesn’t just block out the shame).
- I’ll add that a second benefit is that religiously speaking, it gives the person the opportunity to seek forgiveness and redemption. (If you’re not religious, I think the first benefit is sufficient.)
Similarly, because I think abortion is morally wrong, I think it’s appropriate for a post-abortive woman to feel some level of shame. It could actually be good for her.
Obviously that could go too far. In the case of the post-abortive woman, I wouldn’t want her to hate herself or want to kill herself because she feels so ashamed. But if she feels a little bit of shame that motivates her to stop or get help, that seems like a good thing for her, not a bad thing.
You’re going to think very differently about that case, Leah, because you don’t think abortion is morally wrong, so you think any feelings of shame that people would have would be inappropriate. It would be like if someone was trained by society to believe that eating chocolate was sinful, and then every time that person eats a chocolate bar, he feels really ashamed. That would be an inappropriate shame, because he hasn’t done anything wrong by simply eating chocolate, but he feels like he has anyway because he was badly morally trained.
Now you might respond that the only reason a post-abortive person would feel personal shame is because pro-lifers have stigmatized abortion. And I would respond that abortion is the kind of act that ought to be stigmatized in the sense that we don’t talk about it as if it’s morally neutral because it directly kills babies. So once again, we’d be back to the central question, “Is elective abortion morally wrong?”
I recently read a pretty interesting book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” by Jon Ronson. It discussed the relatively recent phenomena of people using the internet to not only shame people but to attempt to ruin their lives. (I’m not going to recommend the book to my readers, as there is a fairly graphic description of an orgy, in the context of the author exploring communities that try to completely eliminate all feelings of shame from their lives.) Most of the book is telling stories from some of the most famous examples of recent public shaming from the perspective of the person shamed, and some of the book is exploring the concept of public shaming itself. After all, punishing people by putting them into the stocks to publicly shame them was rightly made illegal in most states a long time ago, because it was believed that the harm done to someone’s reputation could basically ruin their life.
Reading the stories of people who’ve been publicly shamed gave me great empathy for them. They were rarely innocent, mind you. They usually had done or said something incredibly stupid or disrespectful, but they don’t deserve for their lives to be ruined as a result. Women especially have often been shamed by idiots on the internet who are using the strongest language they can think of, using real threats of violence. I won’t give graphic examples here because I want to respect the people reading this who have sexual violence in their histories. Just trust me when I say, people on the internet can be truly awful. I’m sure you’ve experienced some of this yourself, which if that’s true, I feel awful about. :(
Everybody here can agree that that is a kind of shaming that should never be done. Think of this as one extreme of a spectrum of things that can cause a person to feel “shame” in public.
An example of the other extreme end of the spectrum could be me walking onstage to give a speech and a pro-choice person in the audience booing me.
Let’s think for a second about what it is that makes the second example so much milder than the first.
- I think one of the factors is how extreme (or not extreme) the individual act of public shaming is. There’s a huge difference between being threatened with rape and someone booing you.
- There’s also the amount of people doing said shaming. In my booing example, it would be one person. In some of the cases in Jon Ronson’s book, there would be thousands or more acts of shaming. People aren’t typically emotionally prepared to handle something like that.
Generally speaking, I’m opposed to the use of public shame with abortion. So for example I’m opposed to people hanging outside abortion clinics yelling “MURDERER” at clients. I’m not in favor of people publishing abortion practitioner’s addresses so their neighbors can hassle them, or trying to “out” celebrities who are post-abortive. There could probably be some exceptions to this rule, such as a Gosnell-like person, so I’m uncomfortable making an absolute statement here. But at least in general, I’m opposed to public shaming with abortion acts, largely because I don’t think it helps anyone.
I think some pro-choice people would go farther than that though and say that me making a moral argument against abortion in public, even on a blog or on Facebook, is an act of shaming because a post-abortive person could hear or read that argument and feel shamed. I don’t think that’s an act of shaming though. There’s clearly no intent to shame people and if someone as a result feels shame, it seems like this should go in the first category of personally felt shame. If we’re going to say that nobody should be allowed to debate topics in public that could possibly cause somebody to feel shame, nobody will be talking about anything important in public. Clearly that’s not the way for our society to move forward.
Now let’s go back to the thought experiment about the cocaine addict. I think it’s pretty clear that him feeling some level of personal shame is a good thing for him, but that’s probably more clear because nobody else is wagging their proverbial finger at him. Would it be appropriate for a friend to call him out in private?
I think the devil is in the details here. Obviously a person shouldn’t jeer at him and call him derogatory names. But imagine a friend of his said, “I care about you, and because I care about you I’m going to say the hard thing. What you’re doing is wrong. It’s hurting you, and you need help.” That sounds to me like a good friend.
I’m sure somebody out there would cry, “BUT HE’S SHAMING HIS FRIEND! YOU SHOULD NEVER EVER DO THAT!” And I would argue that IF that counts as shaming, it’s appropriate shaming because of how it’s handled and the intent of the friend. He’s trying to help, and not to hurt. (It’s like chemotherapy. It hurts, but it may be necessary to get better.) It’s also appropriate because what he’s saying is actually in his friend’s best interest. This kind of shaming seems like it would be inappropriate if either a) his intent was bad, or b) it actually is good to use cocaine.
UPDATE: As I noted to one of my Facebook followers, the appropriateness of this seems to me to be very related with how close the friends are. Read my comment for a real-life example.
In my personal view, the above example shouldn’t have the label “shaming” attached to it. It’s just too different from the very wrong act of public shaming that most people mean when they use the word.
If abortion is a morally unjustifiable act of direct killing, then I think there’s some level of shame that somebody would be right to feel after having an abortion, even if nobody else shames them.
I generally think it’s inappropriate to publicly shame post-abortive people, but I do think it would be appropriate for one of their friends to say, “You know where I’m at on this issue. I think abortion is really wrong. I still care about you and know you were going through a tough time, and I really don’t want to see you go through a tough time. I’m not going to condone what you did just because I care about you, but if you ever want to talk about it or come to feel like you need help, I will always be here for you.”
Both of those seem completely appropriate to me, and some would lump both in the shame category. This is what I mean when I say that I think some level of shame is appropriate if abortion is a morally impermissible act of direct killing.
I’m not going to shout at post-abortive women that they should be ashamed of themselves. But I also don’t want abortion to be de-stigmatized. I think it’s really wrong to kill unborn babies, and really harmful to the women who do it, so society coming to treat abortion like it’s a morally innocuous thing is definitely not a goal for me.
Question: What are your thoughts? Should we think of shame differently?
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The post “How Should Pro-Lifers Think About Post-Abortive Shame?” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Click here to subscribe via email and get exclusive access to a FREE MP3 of Josh Brahm’s speech, “Nine Faulty Pro-Life Arguments and Tactics.”
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