The Power of Language and Media in shaping narratives around Abortion, Contraception and Pregnancy

Rangeen Khidki
6 min readOct 19, 2021

TW: Mention of abortion, pregnancy (Abortion and pregnancy might have been a traumatic experience for many people, hence the trigger warning.)

Shatarupa, member of the research team

Language is a very powerful tool. It shapes us, socialises and re-socialises us into different structures and institutions present in our society. A child learns and acquires various languages, not necessarily oral, while growing up. These languages however do not exist in isolation. They are shaped by the social structures and society we are a part of. India and its patriarchal society, where power is usually vested in the hands of cis gendered heterosexual men, The languages are also shaped by the same patriarchal structure. The languages, which we usually use, stigmatize and perpetuate gender discrimination, bodily autonomy, and the choice and rights of marginalized genders. This article attempts to talk about how languages, which form an integral part of our socialisation process, are being shaped and reshaped by agents of socialisation and by those in power and control of resources and how these languages are being used to deal with narratives on and about abortion.

The Brahmanical patriarchal structure in India controls every aspect of a woman’s life, putting the control of sexuality of women at the centre. One of the reasons why it is done is for the continuation of the male lineage. Therefore, when a woman gets pregnant, in a cis-gendered heterosexual marriage bond, it is glorified. Pregnancy is said to have many cultural and religious beliefs attached to it. It defines what a “family” is for a lot of people in India and all around the world. Infact, a family is said to be complete when you have a child (preferably, biological). It is looked up as an “ideal” form of parenthood while other forms of parenthood, which are outside the norm of a heterosexual marriage bond are looked down at and stigmatized. With child birth and pregnancy being put on such a high pedestal, abortion remains stereotyped and condemned. Terms like “feticide”, “kill an unborn child” are examples of stigmaztisation of abortion. The word which can be used instead of these is “ending a pregnancy”. Furthermore, “unsafe abortion” and “illegal abortion” are often used interchangeably. The former refers to abortion performed by untrained providers or when women are unable to safely undergo a medical abortion while the latter refers to violation of the law but can be safe. (Source: CREA)

These terms and languages are often shaped by the content we consume and vice versa. One of the most powerful tools from which we learn is media, like advertisements, be it print or digital media. Advertisements, ranging from 20–60 seconds provide an avenue for disseminating a lot of information. Again, advertisements too are culturally embedded and shaped. Let us take the example of this video, it shows how a couple, who do not have access to proper contraceptive measures, conceive children until they realise the cost of raising a child. The man here is seen saying “sambhal lunga mai ‘’ (I will handle, referring to withdrawal or pull out) but fails to do so, which forces the woman to visit a doctor, who recommends her Copper T and contraceptive injections. This advertisement is multi-layered. It shows the unwillingness of the man to use a contraceptive (such as condom), who is seen forcing his will on his wife which leads to unplanned pregnancies. The “control” which the woman gets at the end is out of no other choice or decision left in her hands. Such advertisements, shown in positive light to prevent unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, lead to perpetuating norms and stigmas of the patriarchal structure of a family and the power which cis gendered hetrosexual men have over women.. It also shows the lack as well as the need of comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in our country which makes people take uninformed decisions.

Along with the need for talking about CSE, there is also a need to sensitize people in the field of medicine about the various intersectional identities which exist in India. When we talk about gender in India, we can’t disassociate it from caste and class. Various scholars like Tulsi Patel in ‘Global Standards in Childbirth Practices’ have shown through their ethnographies how pregnant people who want to access medical services are treated in the hospitals in rural areas. Patel talks about how the attitudes of hospital staff differed for women according to their class, caste and social capital. In urban areas too the reality is no different. Caste dynamics seep in through various overt and covert ways. This ad by Prega News of Kareena Kapoor saying that pregnancy tests are just a “5 minutes affair” and denying her domestic worker a leave on the same basis shows the large class-caste divide among women in India and the apathy towards women from marginalized categories.

Another observation which can be made with respect to advertisements is how pregnancy is termed as “good news” and motherhood is glorified and how many campaigns are framed around it. Here again, we can see how language plays its role. Using “good” makes a value judgement and divides it into binaries. This might be at times used as a subtle way of indicating abortion in the negative light. Coming to visuals and images, use of child figures or explicit shock images should be avoided as it can be triggering to many, instead the focus should shift from the child to the pregnant person. More diverse depictions, such as women from different ages, marital and socio-economic status should be shown so as to create an image that pregnancy is not limited to one particular bracket. (Source: CREA)

Picture from #AbortTheStigma Campaign by CREA. Gender and age diverse representation can be seen in the image. The image also highlights the choice of the pregnant person, their perspective and situation.

The depictions that are currently there in the media around pregnancy mostly focus on cishet women as being a part of a “family”, which fails to focus on what the pregnant person’s choices and decisions are. For a cis-gendered heterosexual woman, who is otherwise subjugated, pregnancy is a time when she is taken utmost care of by her family. However, this act of taking “care” is also at times glorified by advertisements. This ad of Pregakem with the tagline “support the change, support your partner” shows how a man (here the husband), who is otherwise not invested or ignorant about most things which usually happens in the household, suddenly turns into a “caring husband” because his wife is pregnant. It yet again glorifies the work which a man does, something that should be considered as a basic responsibility and not be applauded as an extraordinary achievement. The tagline itself which says that “support your partner” makes us think if the burden of childbirth is just on the pregnant person. It also makes us wonder if motherhood (depicted through cishet women, mostly) is the only way through which women will attain respect, love, equality and care in our society? Will the same care be provided after the childbirth, or will the responsibilities of bringing up a child follow the traditional family structure where the mother has to take care of everything? Infact, data and studies on postnatal care show how it has remained unimaginably low despite government programmes due to lack of sensitization and counselling for postnatal care and also highlights the role that the families should play post childbirth.

There are also ads which try to show how women are complete in themselves but such consciousness in ads have started taking ground recently, even though the patriarchal undertones remain. These ads are only a few examples of the thousands of content available through digital and print media, which have shaped our perspective since its inception. We need to learn, unlearn and relearn a lot of things, disseminate a lot of accurate information in a healthy, sex positive and pleasure affirmative way so as to rectify our mistakes, our biases and our discriminations. Along with that, different measures like age-appropriate Comprehensive Sexuality Education should be made available and accessible to everyone, especially to adolescents in schools since that is one of the major pillars of socialisation. A positive approach, which is rights-based, should be brought when we see or read about abortions, especially in media. Access and knowledge about safe abortions should be provided. Bodies of marginalised genders should not just remain as a mere political tool but rights, choices and autonomy should be provided to them. How do you think we can destigmatize the taboos around abortions and make it accessible to all?

(Note: The article talks and analyses the ads which are cisheterosexual in nature)



Rangeen Khidki

We work with urban as well as rural youth and women on Gender & Sexuality, Sexual Reproductive Health Rights, mental health, education and life skills.