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Will Sharing Abortion Stories Further Reproductive Justice?

A sure-to-be-controversial new book offers a guide for ending the so-called “abortion wars” through empathy.

(Photo: Pregnancy Test via Shutterstock, Edited: LW / TO)

Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight.
By Aspen Baker.
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June 2015.

Fifteen years ago, Aspen Baker founded a post-abortion telephone talk line “for women and men who need to talk about their abortion experience.” Called Exhale, it bills itself as neither pro- nor anti-choice and claims to be free of both judgment and politics.

“Our country has never really talked about the personal experience of abortion,” Baker writes in Pro-Voice. Despite periodic speak-outs in which women relive what they went through in the years before Roe v. Wade brought abortion into mainstream medicine, it’s true that, for the most part, people don’t publicly share their abortion stories. Nonetheless, Baker notes, “as long as women have abortions, they are going to have feelings about it. Whether these feelings are complicated, ambiguous, or clear, having them is a natural, normal part of being human. When we take the time to listen, the strictly enforced black-and-white parameters of the abortion debate crumble away beneath the weight of our messy truths.”

Baker came to this conclusion following her own abortion when she was 24 and fresh out of college. Although she writes that she felt grateful to be able to terminate the pregnancy, she also notes that she felt a slew of conflicting emotions once the procedure was over. “I searched for support,” she writes, “people and places to go talk about my abortion. Even in Berkeley, California, all I found were Christian pro-life organizations that wanted me to seek forgiveness from God. This wasn’t what I needed.” The pro-choice camp was similarly unhelpful, she continues, and she ultimately had to consult a therapist to unravel how the unplanned pregnancy had upended her expectations and shaken her core values while simultaneously providing her with relief and comfort.

But angst aside, Baker understood that she was not the only person who wanted to talk about sex, pregnancy and abortion, and given the ostensible need, she set out to fill an organizational void. Then, as the idea for Exhale took shape, its overall mission became clear: The multilingual phone line would work to create a stigma-free culture around abortion by encouraging people to speak honestly, openly and freely about their lives.

Since fielding its first call in 2000, Exhale has grown exponentially, and its highly trained counselors serve as empathetic listeners, drawing callers out and urging them to express their innermost feelings, no matter how jumbled or contradictory they seem. “All of our callers have already made their choice,” Baker writes. “Our job isn’t to decide whether or not theirs was the right or wrong decision, but to make sure that they get the unconditional love and support they need to move forward and have healthy lives.”

These are certainly laudable goals, and while it is undoubtedly cathartic for callers to feel heard, supported and respected, Baker believes that Exhale’s pro-voice model has broader applications and the potential for wider social impact. As she sees it, “The shift away from judgment and toward empathy,” alongside the recognition that deciding to have an abortion is sometimes fraught with emotional complexity, “can move the nation out of the abortion wars and toward peace.”

I’d like to think she’s right about this, but I don’t, at least not fully. That is, despite my fervent belief that stories matter and can have a dramatic impact on ideas and ideology, I don’t think those men and women who protest in front of clinics with billboard-sized photos of bloody fetuses and who berate clinicians and patients as killers and sinners, will be swayed by accounts that run counter to the abortion-is-murder rhetoric they endlessly repeat. Similarly, the conservative activists who hack clinic websites, and the legislators who get re-elected by pandering to a “pro-life” base, have too much to lose to suddenly turn tail and admit the error of their ways.

What’s more, they’d have to address the sexism, if not outright misogyny, of their philosophy and worldview.

This, says Charlotte Taft, former executive director of the Abortion Care Network – a national association of independent reproductive health-care providers – is the crux of the abortion issue. “Pro-voice is an interesting addition to approaches to ending stigma,” she told Truthout. At the same time, she believes that until “the hatred and fear of women that exists all over the planet” is eradicated, the fight over abortion will continue.

Reproductive Justice activist-scholar Loretta Ross takes this notion even further. “The attacks on abortion are part of a multi-frontal assault on human rights, freedom, modernity, equality, justice and progress,” Ross begins. “It is naively myopic to believe that women’s voices, in-and-of themselves, can derail this constellated strategy. To think that individuals can self-help or self-voice themselves out of oppression sounds like a marketplace response to a totalizing system of injustice. While it may be personally healing to the individual involved, it will do little to address the repressive social, economic and political forces arranged against us.”

Baker, of course, disagrees with these critiques and argues that personal stories – detailed accounts that highlight the murky particulars rather than the bite-sized talking points that over-simplify the abortion experience – is the best, and maybe the only, way to influence public opinion. She also sees stories as a way to marginalize those people – including clinic protesters who promote violence to “save the unborn” – who refuse to listen.

I really hope she’s onto something but can’t help but remain skeptical. Indeed, 42 years after Roe was decided, the abortion issue is as divisive as ever, with little common ground between pro- and anti-choice poles. Then again, if the largely disaffected middle – those who don’t expect the politics of abortion to touch their lives – can be reached through viral storytelling about reproductive choices, who knows what will happen. After all, very few of us expected attitudes around gay marriage and tough-on-crime policies to change, and they have.

What’s more, it doesn’t have to be an either/or. Baker is convinced that wide-scale story sharing will lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds abortion and reduce the stigma around ending unwanted pregnancies. If this proves true, we all win. And, while activists may still have to defend clinics, clinicians and patients faced with screaming “sidewalk counselors” – and fight legislative incursions on access at the state and federal levels – if personal narratives can move even a handful of hearts and minds, it will signal tangible and meaningful progress for women and families.

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