Talking about abortion online: A qualitative exploration of how and why women use the Internet to seek social support around abortion

Wilson-Lowe, Rachel (2023) Talking about abortion online: A qualitative exploration of how and why women use the Internet to seek social support around abortion. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Background: Despite its frequent occurrence, abortion remains stigmatised. Abortions are often concealed from social network members, which may as a result limit access to social support during what is - for some - a difficult experience. Online spaces have previously been shown to be valuable resources for seeking healthcare-related information, and also for support in managing stigmatising experiences. While there has been previous academic exploration of the content within online abortion accounts themselves, little is known about why women engage with and share abortion-related content online, how they access and navigate these online spaces, and how these experiences may shape their understanding of their abortion, which my research sought to address. Using key sociological concepts of stigma, social support, and personal disclosure (henceforth referred to in this thesis as ‘sharing’), the research presented in this thesis sought to explore how these concepts relate to each other to inform the motivations of women to go online seeking abortion-related content and their experiences therein. Methods: To answer the research questions posed in this thesis, which sought detailed accounts of how and why women used online spaces in relation to abortion accounts online, qualitative methodologies informed by feminist research practice were used. Twenty-three women living in Scotland (aged 20- 54) were recruited in the summer of 2020 through social media and online advertisements, and participated in in-depth, semi-structured interviews online or by telephone. Of the sample, all participants reported reading and exploring others’ abortion-related content online, with ten women reporting that in addition to this activity they too shared their own abortion experience online. Interviews focused on use of online spaces containing abortion-related content and their experiences of their abortion(s) more broadly. The data were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis. Findings: My analysis suggests that stigma and social support were significant factors in the decision to use online spaces to explore abortion-related content, and the supportive and stigmatising experiences that they reported online substantially shaped their perception of their own abortion(s) and abortion more broadly. The avoidance of stigmatising interactions with in-person social network members, and the possibility of accessing otherwise unavailable social support, were primary drivers for participants to view, interact with, and share abortionrelated content. Finding what they viewed as relevant and supportive online content was not straightforward, with the onus of finding this content constituting an additional burden at what was already a potentially challenging time. Participants had to navigate towards online spaces within which they felt comfortable engaging, considering ‘affordances’ of anonymity, visibility, and control. Online support was perceived to be available via both one-way and twoway pathways, with participants valuing the availability of abortion accounts in these online spaces and the opportunity to interact further with that content, should they wish to do so. Concurrently, abortion stigma was prevalent online, significantly shaping participants’ experiences, their willingness to engage or share further, and their thoughts about their abortion more broadly. Conclusions: This thesis frames stigma and social support as interconnected factors impacting women’s experiences of exploring abortion-related content online. My findings suggest that online spaces can be both an opportunity to have supportive engagement with others who have had an abortion experience, addressing a perceived gap from in-person resources, and concurrently expose women to abortion stigma and harassment, which in many cases is what they sought to avoid in the first place. Signposting towards well-moderated and trusted online resources would be beneficial in limiting exposure to anti-abortion sentiment online while allowing women to access spaces in which to read and interact with others’ abortion accounts.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Colleges/Schools: College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Health & Wellbeing > MRC/CSO Unit
Supervisor's Name: Purcell, Dr. Carrie, Lewis, Dr. Ruth and McDaid, Prof. Lisa
Date of Award: 2023
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2023-83509
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 29 Mar 2023 10:21
Last Modified: 29 Mar 2023 10:23
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83509

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