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Can abortion be de-stigmatized?

By Carol Costello
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carol Costello: New strategy over abortion rights recalls Maude dustup in 1972
  • After that TV avoided abortion; now activists working to remove stigma
  • She says Emily Letts showed video of her abortion; writers, pols discuss theirs
  • Costello: Anti-abortion activists say they're winning anyway, stigma of abortion remains

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- There is a new strategy in the battle over abortion rights. I don't quite know what to call it, but I haven't seen anything like it since the fictional 47-year-old Maude Findlay chose to abort her fetus on TV's "Maude" in 1972.

Back then, the idea was to portray a woman's choice realistically, but boy, did CBS pay a price. As the Chicago Tribune noted, the United States Catholic Conference promptly organized a campaign against "Maude." It worked. "Maude's Dilemma," which played in two parts, drew huge audiences, but when CBS repeated them in 1973, "nearly 40 affiliates chose not to air them, not one corporate sponsor bought commercial time, and CBS received more than 17,000 letters of protest."

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

Lesson learned!

After that, while abortion was not exactly taboo, it certainly was, shall we say, a decision no TV character made without dire consequences. I still remember watching the soap opera, "The Young and the Restless," with my grandma. The character Ashley Abbott unexpectedly got pregnant, had an abortion and promptly started carrying around a baby doll. She ended up in a mental institution.

Fast forward to 2014, and things are changing. Not only are some TV shows, like "Parenthood," portraying abortion without shame, but activists are too.

As in posting their abortions online for everyone to see, as Emily Letts did.

"When I realized I was pregnant, I realized this was an amazing opportunity to help women," Emily Letts told my producer.

"I wished I could show (women) what it looks like, that a first trimester surgical abortion takes 3 to 5 minutes, and your greatest risk of having the procedure is infection."

Letts, then 25 and an abortion counselor at Cherry Hill Women's Center in New Jersey, videotaped her surgical abortion procedure and posted it to YouTube early this year, later entering it into a contest sponsored by an organization called, "The Abortion Care Network."

She came in first place. Extreme? You betcha. After all, extremism works in America. In-your-face behavior seems to be the only message that gets through the other noise.

Abortion rights activists have told me that such "extremist tactics" have been an effective tool of the anti-abortion side of the debate for decades. If the group, Created Equal, can project bloody, allegedly aborted fetuses on a 10-by-12-foot screen next to Philadelphia's Liberty Bell to try and prove that abortion is murder, then why shouldn't women who have abortions use extreme methods to try and prove it's not?

"There's an entire war against women's' uteruses in America," Letts said. "We believe that in order to truly change legislation and the politics of shame and violence on women, we need to change the culture. We believe we need to start speaking, we need to share our stories."

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, 46 states now allow individual healthcare providers to refuse to participate in an abortion. Twenty-six states require a waiting period for women seeking an abortion. And 39 states now require that abortions be performed by a licensed physician.

And if you think THAT last stat is not the biggest win of all for the anti-abortion side, you'd be wrong.

After Texas passed a law this summer requiring, among other things, doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 13 miles of the clinic where an abortion is performed, clinics were initially forced to close. Had the U.S. Supreme Court not intervened, only 8 clinics would have served a state with a population of 26 million.

As Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee told me, her side is winning. The tide, she says, has turned, and no pro-choice, extremist agenda will reverse it.

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"I don't think women standing up and saying I've had an abortion, and I'm proud of it is going to have much of an impact," Tobias told me.

She says abortion can't be de-stigmatized. "They (women) still know it's wrong."

Eric Ferraro, from Planned Parenthood, says it isn't quite that simple.

"Women have a wide range of experiences when they have an abortion. Some feel a deep sense of relief, some feel a deep sense of regret ... and everything in between."

Is it possible every one of the more than 40 million women around the world who have abortions every year wind up carrying around a baby doll like the soap opera character Ashley Abbott?

Not Jenny Kutner, who writes for Salon.com. She decided to write about her decision to have an abortion after her IUD failed.

"I always felt strongly about sharing these stories," Kutner told me. She said she wanted to remove "a stigma around abortion" she doesn't think should exist.

"I did not want to feel shame."

And two months after she terminated her pregnancy, she still feels she made the right decision. "I had a remarkably average story to tell. Stories that "don't get told because of the stigma'."

Politicians are sharing their stories too. And I'm not just talking about Wendy Davis, the state senator and now Texas gubernatorial candidate, whose filibuster against abortion restrictions catapulted her onto the national stage. Gone is the Clinton mantra, "safe, legal and rare." Today, politicians, like Lucy Flores, are talking about their own abortions.

As Slate.com reported, Flores, a state representative in Nevada, told voters she had an abortion at 16. All six of her sisters had gotten pregnant as teenagers, and she did not want to face the same hardships they endured.

"I don't regret it," Flores told Slate. "I don't regret it because I am here making a difference, at least in my mind, for many other young ladies and letting them know that there are options and they can do things to not be in the situation I was in, but to prevent it."

The question is: Can abortion really be "de-stigmatized?"

It's difficult for me to accept that abortion is a "simple medical procedure," but I'm not all women.

My abortion rights friends find parts of the strategy to remove the stigma "horrifying" (the abortion contest), but other parts of the strategy effective (Kutner's sharing her "unremarkably average" story).

My anti-abortion friends are unmoved. They could not think of any strategy that would change how they feel about voluntarily ending a pregnancy.

As a wise man in the news business once told me, "It's an issue you can't win," because "no one changes their mind."

But, then again...

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