This is not your typical common-ground discussion. There are no tables to sit around, no opponents to fear, no issues to sacrifice. And no one has to stop advocating for their cause.
I write today with a call to action to every woman who, like me, has had an abortion. I invite each and every one of you to join me in growing a movement that spreads support and respect for one another. The action I invite you to take with me is to listen to each other – to listen to all women who have had abortions.
Listening to women who have had abortions can contribute to peace in the Abortion Wars, according to Eyal Rabinovitch, an expert on conflict transformation. Conflict transformation, as he describes in a paper published today by my organization, works best when the process gives voice to those the conflict has hidden and neglected. And transforming conflict requires that we “cultivate authentic and meaningful relationships” with others who hold a stake in its outcome.
We – women who have had abortions – are the ones who must lead the way. We must lead with empathy, understanding, and acceptance. We lead by practicing our values and treating each other as we would like to be treated.
We must lead because we know all too well how it feels to be judged. We know what it’s like to hope for respect and understanding and get condemnation or suspicion instead. We have wondered when we will ever see a story like ours in the media or meet another woman whose story we can relate to. We are tired of so many people talking about us and getting it wrong, getting us wrong, every time. This feeling – of not being seen and heard for our unique experience – is what we have in common.
Too often, we blame each other for this problem. But blaming each other perpetuates the conflict and adds to the stigma. And the divisive impact of the conflict and stigma is all around us.
It shows up when an anonymous woman writes in Salon after her abortion:
“I woke up feeling damaged, empty, scared, guilty and in pain. The terms ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ were emanating from the TV screen. They sounded reductive, glaringly inadequate. The word ‘abortion,’ fraught with shame and accusation, was being bandied about for pieces of political theater. The words ‘baby killer’ were omnipresent, too. Although I didn’t feel like a baby killer, like I’d killed my baby, I did feel partially dead.”
….and another woman, Serai1, who has also had an abortion, responds in the comments:
“Are we ever – and I mean EVER – going to see an article written by a woman for whom abortion was NOT ‘the hardest decision of my life’? Because I can assure you, there are thousands of women for whom this is not a hard decision, not at all. I was one of them … In fact, in all my life, I’ve never known any woman who had an abortion who wrung her hands or agonized about it. They all considered their options and decided for abortion in a calm, reasonable manner.”
“I cannot agree w/Angie & her sharing on-line w/the world about her decision to abort. I do not talk about my abortion & miscarriages much to anyone. It is painful. I carry it all close to my soul.”
We perpetuate our own separation as women who have had abortions when some of us make websites like I’mNotSorry and establish it as an exclusive site only for women to share “their positive experiences with abortion,” while others of us launch Silent No More as a private club only for those who regret their abortions.
As women who have had abortions, we add to the conflict when we pick and choose the elements we believe should make up an abortion story. When the group Abortion Changes You, founded by a woman who has had abortions, decided to highlight some of the negative changes that can result from abortion and ignore the rest, others protested her efforts, pointing out that the site forgets women who don’t experience negative results — but in turn, those protestors had nothing to say about the woman who regrets her abortion. She, too, was forgotten.
Instead of fighting each other, and perpetuating the abortion wars, we must listen to each other and stand together. We do this when we strive for connection amongst the polarizing force of conflict. We challenge the status quo when we are nonjudgmental despite the climate of shame. We practice nonviolence when we listen to one another and cultivate our relationships.
We are the ones we need, and we must lead as role models.
It should not be a surprise that women with personal experiences of abortion have had to find a way to fit their story into the existing political frames. We are all faced with the same choice after abortion: invisibility or validation. For good reason, most of us prefer validation.
It “can be hard,” @abortioneers tweeted to me on April 22, to “hear someone describe an experience you think of as ‘yours’ in a not-yours way.” She continued, “After so long thinking yours was the ONLY story (or only one available), finding others and their stories is both a blessing and a challenge!” (I expanded the 140-character tweet limit to make it more readable.)
She is right. And we must do our part to open the door to more stories, more listening, more voices, more women, and men.
Our charge – our call to action – as women who have had abortions is to seek to listen and serve as a witness to one another. Together, we can grow a movement that spreads support and respect for all of us, all women who have had abortions.
We can all be visible and validated.
Aspen Baker is the founder and executive director of Exhale, an award-winning pro-voice organization. Exhale’s mission is to create a social climate where each person’s unique experience with abortion is supported, respected and free from stigma. Their national, multilingual talkline provides nonjudgmental emotional support to women, and their loved ones, after abortion.
By Aspen Baker, Founder and Executive Director, Exhale