Pregnancy shaming. It’s a thing, and unfortunately it’s super common in this era when so many people feel entitled to have an opinion about other people’s family sizes. Pregnancy shaming is nothing new of course. Unwed pregnant women historically (and still in many countries) faced a ton of shame (or worse). In the West, although unwed pregnancy itself is not quite so shameful as it used to be, plenty of women—married and unmarried alike—are still shamed for being pregnant.1
Who is shamed? Sometimes it is the poor woman who has dared to get pregnant despite the fact that she is not financially stable. Sometimes it’s the married woman who has her boy and girl and so the culture has deemed that there is no need for her to have another child. It is every woman who dares get pregnant in any circumstance that is less than the perfectly ideal. Previously the pregnancy revealed that an unwed woman had had sex, and so the sex was shamed. Whereas before women were shamed for a behavior, now they are shamed for being female—that is, for having a body that functions the way female bodies naturally do. Now, so many people view it as everyone’s right to be having sex, but being in denial about the failure rate of contraceptives, many believe pregnancy to be perfectly controllable, and therefore evidence of the woman’s irresponsibility.
So I think some education is in order. Firstly, it is a myth that practicing “safe” sex erases the possibility of pregnancy. No method of birth control is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy. If we look at “the pill” for example, the most common form of contraceptive used by women and teens today, the user or typical effectiveness rate is about 91%. In the US, about 9.5 million women are on the pill.2 If every woman on the pill were sexually active and capable of becoming pregnant, we would see close to a million unintended pregnancies. That is just the women on the pill. We haven’t even looked at the failure rates of any other contraceptive. In fact, if every woman of childbearing age in the US used a contraceptive method with a 99% effectiveness rate, that’s still over 600,000 unintended pregnancies in just a single year. If we assess this risk over the course of the woman’s lifetime, the result is millions and millions of unintended pregnancies.
We have convinced at least two generations of people that sex no longer has to lead to pregnancy as long as we are responsible, but this simply isn’t true. This often overlooked reality is why in 2014, a little over half of women getting an abortion reported using some form of birth control the month they got pregnant.3 A Spanish study, published in 2011, found that a 63% increase in the use of contraceptives was accompanied by a 108% increase in the rate of elective abortions.4 David Paton, author of a number of studies on teen pregnancy and contraception in the UK, in “The Economics of Family Planning and Underage Conceptions” wrote that he found no evidence “that the provision of family planning reduces either underage conception or abortion rates.”5 These aren’t the first studies to find such results. We often assume that contraceptives prevent tons of pregnancies, but the reality is that women make different sexual choices if they believe they can’t get pregnant.
So it’s possible that society is shunning a woman who was “responsible” and was using contraceptives when she became pregnant. If we still choose to shame women for pregnancy, does that mean we as a culture are okay with shaming women for not choosing abortion? Are we at that point? This unfortunate reality happens of course. A study in the Winter 2017 issue of Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons reported that almost 60% of women who “chose” abortion did so due to significant pressure from others,6 but are we now as a culture going to be openly okay with that, rather than acknowledge that this is an atrocious thing to do? Because shaming women for not aborting is basically what we are doing when we make women feel embarrassed for being pregnant, when we deride the mother with lots of children, or when we act like we have a right to have a say on others’ family size.
The number of women who have said to me that they are done having children because their mother or mother-in-law would freak out if they became pregnant again is very telling. I’ve actually heard this from women as the reason given for limiting their family size more often than I’ve heard women tell me that they themselves don’t want more. In fact, it has often seemed to me that the women would be open to more and be joyful to have more but they fear the scorn of others. I’ve known a number of women pregnant with their fourth or fifth child who felt embarrassed. They want their child and are happy to have him or her; they just hate the looks of exasperation and the comments of others every time they leave the house with their children.
All of this shaming women for pregnancy just seems to me like the same old misogyny promenading around the city square. It’s the same reason that, culturally, we look down our noses at all work traditionally performed by women but treat traditional male roles as the height of success and achievement. It’s the reason we treat the pill as a right of passage for teens and why we are so convinced that women are better off having their normal and healthy physiology altered through artificial contraceptives despite any side effects. As a culture, we are incredibly suspicious and disdainful of the functional female body.
I believe that every woman deserves to be congratulated and have her pregnancies celebrated, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the conception. If we want to create a culture that really celebrates and empowers women, there are many steps we can take to create such an environment (such as developing family-friendly work policies and culture and maternal health benefits in student and work health plans), but the first step is to simply stop shaming people for being female.
- Emily Glover. “8 Women Share What It’s Like to be Shamed During Pregnancy.” Ravishly. Nov 23, 2016. Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.ravishly.com/2016/11/23/8-women-share-what-its-be-shamed-during-pregnancy
- “Contraceptive Use in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute. July 26, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/contraceptive-use-united-states
- “About Half of U.S. Abortion Patients Report Using Contraception in the Month They Became Pregnant.” Guttmacher Institute. Jan 11, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2018/about-half-us-abortion-patients-report-using-contraception-month-they-became
- J.L. Dueñas, I. Lete, R. Bermejo, A. Arbat, et al. “Trends in the Use of Contraceptive Methods and Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy in the Spanish Population During 1997-2007.” Contraception. 83, no. 1 (Jan 2011): 82-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21134508
- D. Paton, “The Economics of Family Planning and Underage Conceptions.” Journal of Health Economics. 21, no. 2 (Mar 2002): 207-25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11939239
- Priscilla K. Coleman, Kaitlyn Boswell, Katrina Etzkorn, Rachel Turnwald. “Women Who Suffered Emotionally from Abortion: A Qualitative Synthesis of Their Experiences.” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. 22, no. 4 (Winter 2017) 113-8. http://www.jpands.org/vol22no4/coleman.pdf