Article

Overcoming Stigma: Talking Freely About Abortion

I didn’t know how common abortion is until I had one. And then, I only learned because I searched for someone comforting to talk to afterward.

You can imagine my shock when I discovered that more than one third of women in America will have an abortion in their lifetime. My fears of being one of the few, one of “those – selfish, stupid, immature, immoral, overly sexed, irresponsible (you can use your own imagination to fill in the blank here) – women” to have had an abortion began to subside, just a bit.

But as I began to pay more attention to the topic of abortion, I found little connection between the political and moral rhetoric and my own personal experience. There seemed to be only two types of stories worthy of mention in the debate and because I didn’t have either – the “pre-Roe, illegal, unsafe, back alley, lecherous doctor with a hanger that results in relief and empowerment” abortion, or the “cold, coercive, profit-driven abortion-mill experience which causes emotional pain and trauma” abortion – I was out of luck.

I just had your standard, safe, legal abortion that I appreciated but that also left me feeling sad and alone. Surrounded by social myths about women who have abortions and judgments about our decision, I looked for a place to work through it all.

When it turned out what I was looking for didn’t exist, I worked with a group of women to create it. In 2002, we launched Exhale, the nation’s only non-judgmental after-abortion talkline, in the San Francisco Bay Area. On June 1, 2005, we expanded access to the talkline, making it available for free, nationwide, in multiple languages, seven days a week.

Since our launch, Exhale has offered hundreds of women and men the opportunity to talk freely about their experience with abortion. The need to talk about their experience – whether they see it as positive or negative or both – is why people call Exhale.

Our experience on the talkline demonstrates the disconnect between the lives of women and men who experience abortion and the rhetoric that often clouds the debate. In the public sphere, it is often assumed that women who have abortions do so in alignment with political beliefs. Listening to our callers proves that the women who have abortions hold the same questions and beliefs that form the full spectrum of the abortion debate. Questions about when life begins, whether abortion can be a moral, responsible decision, and the potential impact of abortion on women’s physical or emotional health are all important considerations to many women who have abortions.

Yet, because the political debate remains closed to the experiences and stories of these women, many feel stigmatized, isolated, and alone after an abortion. The most frequent question callers pose is whether or not what they’re feeling is normal. Some callers feel like a “bad feminist” for being sad after abortion. Others feel like a “bad Christian” for having had one in the first place. Many are surprised by their lack of guilt or regret, and fear that their response makes them cruel or callous. Many are confused by the mix of emotions they’re experiencing and wonder whether they are the only ones who’ve felt this way. Across the range of experiences and backgrounds, callers often describe feeling alone and unable to talk about their feelings with their support networks.

Beyond providing immediate support to women after an abortion, the need for society to transform the stigma of abortion is crucial because stigma is a barrier to health and well-being. Stigma can impact an individual’s health in a number of ways, often acting as an obstacle for those who would otherwise seek support. The woman who won’t pick up the phone to call Exhale because she believes her intense feelings of grief are abnormal is experiencing the consequences of stigma. The husband who is forced to leave his faith community and find a new church to attend with his wife and kids after confiding with friends suffers the pain of exclusion. The mother, no longer invited to office parties, who held the hand of her daughter through her abortion feels remorse for having shared her feelings about the experience with a co-worker.

As a powerful tool of discrimination, stigma drives a wedge between families and support networks. The sheer number of men and women who call Exhale anonymously is a testament to the harmful presence of stigma and the lack of safe, supportive, non-judgmental spaces for women and men to talk freely about their experience.

People across the political spectrum want to ensure that women can lead emotionally and physically healthy lives. To achieve this goal, a caring friend, parent, or health provider can start by recognizing that each person’s experience with abortion is unique and by focusing on listening, being there for someone affected by abortion, and reserving judgment. With this approach, each of us can participate in creating a social climate based on support and respect, not stigma and shame.

Call Exhale to talk freely about your experience with abortion at 1-866-4 EXHALE. The talkline operates Monday – Friday, 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, 12 p.m. – 10 p.m. PST. Spanish language counseling is available Wednesday nights and upon request. Vietnamese and Cantonese language counseling is available upon request. For more information, visit www.4exhale.org.

Aspen Baker is the founder and executive director of Exhale and serves on the Advisory Board of Our Truths/Nuestras Verdades, a bilingual abortion zine dedicated to bringing to light the diversity of abortion experiences. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and is a member of the Center for American Progress’s Women’s Health Leadership Network.

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