By Rachel Wilson-Lowe |

On my way to interview for my studentship, I remember getting the side-eye from an older gentleman while on the train. I couldn’t figure out what I had done to deserve his ire, until I saw what he was glaring at. Laid out on the table were some of my materials I was reviewing in preparation for my interview, on top in big bold letters was a research article titled, “Experiences of abortion: a narrative review of qualitative studies”. This would not be the last time that I experienced some level of stigma by association because of my research into women’s experiences of abortion, but it was the first time I was aware of it.

I come from Georgia, a very conservative state in the US, which has recently been in the news cycle for passing of some of the most restrictive abortion laws in America. When I made my happy announcement on Facebook about getting accepted into my PhD program and what topic I was pursuing, I watched as my number of Facebook friends dropped in response. And although this has saved me some culling of old high school acquaintances from social media, I just wasn’t expecting it. I also hadn’t anticipated the arguments I would get into with my parents’ friends when I told them about my research. Or the trepidation I sometimes feel when talking to new people about what I do. Sometimes I answer with, “I focus on reproductive health”. A non-specific answer that isn’t a lie, but it isn’t my whole truth either. Then other times I think, if I can’t stand up to abortion stigma then how can I expect others to? How can I enact change when I am purposefully quieting my voice?

handmaids in DC protesting

I am not the first researcher to experience stigma by association, also referred to as courtesy stigma, whilst studying a particular topic area. By extending courtesy to the stigmatized, disregarding the stigmatized attribute and maintaining positive social relationships, an individual is no longer a ‘normal’ non-stigmatized person but not wholly associated with a stigma either. Kirby and Corzine (1981) described their experience in the 60s and 70s working with the LGBTQ community, and how the homophobic attitudes of the time bled into their personal and professional lives. In conducting ethnographic research into the lives of exotic dancers, Carol Rambo lost professional opportunities when academic institutions labelled her a ‘stripper’ and devalued the sociological insight of her work (Worley et al. 2016).

The options previously proposed to manage this courtesy stigma are to either avoid talking about the topic or to become an activist. I have experimented with both. Sometimes it is easier to not bring up my research; sometimes I am tired of having to fight. Abortion access and reproductive rights are never far with the 24-hour news cycle, social media posts, and TV shows like The Handmaids Tale. During PhD working hours I am reading about women’s experiences with abortion stigma and the struggles they endure to access this healthcare procedure. Then I go home to unwind, but my Facebook and Twitter feeds are inundated with horrible news stories about restrictive abortion laws, the threat of returning to a time when women regularly died from unsafe abortions, and anti-abortioners’ rhetoric demonising a choice that has nothing to do with them. With no break, I feel like I can get burnt out. But then on the other hand, I relish the opportunity to broaden people’s minds and fight for reproductive freedoms! I love a good social media argument (yes I am that obnoxious person sometimes), where I can stand up for what I believe in. And every once in a while, I get to be pleasantly surprised by people that I thought would judge.

But is there another option to manage stigma by association? Somewhere more in the middle?

For those of us who are researching sensitive/taboo topics, I think we can very easily suffer from topic exhaustion. Whilst every PhD student can get worn out talking/thinking about our research day in and day out, some of us do so at more of an emotional and social cost. I believe it is important that we take time out, and consciously choose when we are going to engage in our topic versus actively giving our minds and hearts a wee rest. Although we might feel like hypocrites for not sharing our stories to everyone, it is ok to not divulge, to practice a silent form of self-care. Part of advocating for your research is talking care of you and being reflexive in your PhD journey. It is ok to feel conflicted, to choose which battles you want to fight, because it is better than the alternative of giving up when you have no more energy to give. That way when you’re ready, you can stand up and let your voice, and the insights from your research, be heard!


Rachel Wilson-Lowe is a Sociology PhD student at University of Glasgow.  Her research explores women’s experiences of abortion, specifically why/how women are using online spaces to access services and share their stories.  She is an advocate for sexual/reproductive healthcare and rights worldwide. You can find her on Twitter @Rwilsonlowe


Image 1: Flikr; Image 2: Wikimedia Commons