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Women Waiting to Exhale

A new approach to abortion counseling supports women who choose the procedure while letting them tell the complicated, emotional truth about the experience.
 
 
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Aspen Baker was born in a trailer on the beach in San Diego on the third anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Her parents were "surfers, but surfing Christians," says Baker, now 29, who was home-schooled. Her mother was a former Catholic, and Baker was raised in a non-denominational Christian church. Baker was pro-choice, sort of, but she also believed that she could never have an abortion herself.

Then, just after she graduated from Berkeley, she learned she was pregnant. "Initially, I believed I was going to be a mother and have the baby," she says. She was living with roommates and working as a bartender ("Imagine the eight-months-pregnant bartender," she laughs), and she sensed that the relationship she was in was short term; she would be a single mom.

Two co-workers at the bar told her that they had had abortions and felt it was the right choice. Although Baker gradually realized that she didn't want to have the baby, the decision to have an abortion was hard. "When I finally went, it was in a hospital, and I had a nice doctor that explained the procedure to me, and plenty of counseling beforehand," she says. "I was so grateful for the positive medical experience, despite my ambivalence."

She assumed that at some point, though, someone at the clinic was going to tell her how to get follow-up counseling. But no one did. "I didn't bring it up myself because if it's not something that they do, then I figured that my feelings were abnormal and would go away," she says.

They didn't. In fact, her confusion and sadness only increased. "I thought I'd never have an abortion -- and now I had," Baker says. "I questioned my moral beliefs as a human rights activist. I didn't believe in the death penalty. I felt bad about the boyfriend, who had gotten back with his ex."

When she told her parents, who were divorced, her mother refused to talk about abortion and "when I told my dad, he cried all night and told me that this was something I would have to 'reveal' to my husband someday." She felt very alone, Baker recalls: "I cried all of the time, but I didn't want to burden my friends."

Her father called her the next day to say he wanted to support her in any way he could; he just hadn't known what to do in the moment. So Baker began looking for resources. All she could find were thinly disguised antiabortion messages. As a feminist, she says, "I didn't see anything that reflected my experience." Seeking resolution, she interned at CARAL -- the California arm of NARAL, one of the country's oldest abortion rights organizations. But when she would raise the lack of emotional resources for women, she confronted blank faces. It was, she says, as if admitting that she was struggling with her feelings meant that she wasn't really pro-choice.

Eventually Baker discovered several like-minded women in the Bay Area, and they founded Exhale, a non-judgmental post-abortion talk-line, in 2000. The group tried to eliminate anything that might stop a woman from calling, including words like "feminist" or even "pro-choice" in their materials (although Exhale is both).

"We didn't know if we'd ever get a call," recalls Baker. "But we got our first call the second night. It was from a father who wanted to know how to support his daughter." Five years later, Exhale gets about 60 calls a month -- and around 10 percent are from men, often wanting to know what they can do to help a daughter or partner going through an abortion.

In June, Exhale's talk-line is going national.

Exhale's approach to abortion centers on supporting women's experiences, rather than legal rights or lobbying. Haven, a hosting network in New York City, has a similar focus. Haven hosts provide a place to stay for women who travel long distances to have later-term abortions (and thus two- and three-day procedures) in the city. Hosts are vetted, and the vetting is to weed out pro-choice proselytizers as well as the pro-life ones.

Exhale and Haven are changing the way supporters discuss and approach abortion. This strand of the conversation that focuses on supporting women's complicated experiences instead of politicizing them, is gaining prominence -- and meeting resistance.

To wit, when Senator Clinton addressed 1,000 abortion rights supporters on the 32nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade this past January, she both asserted her belief in Roe and said that abortion can be "tragic" for some women. Her words sent shock-waves through the major pro-choice organizations and spurred the New York Times to accuse the Senator of "recalibrating" her pro-choice position in preparation for a 2008 bid for the White House. In other words, she and politicians like Senator Kerry were backpedaling.

This seeming shift in focus in the national conversation, from "Keep your laws off my body" to "let's talk about feelings and sadness, and even (gasp) whether fetal life has value" actually has a long history.

One way of telling the story begins in 1980, with a 30-year-old counselor named Charlotte Taft. Ms. Taft was two years into her tenure directing the Routh Street abortion clinic in Dallas, Texas when, feeling enthusiastic, she decided to draw up a questionnaire for patients coming in for their two-week checkups.

"I wanted to know if patients were afraid to be intimate sexually and emotionally after a procedure, and did they feel adequately protected from another intended pregnancy? So I asked a lot of open-ended questions," recalls Taft, now 54 and a counselor in private practice in Glorieta, New Mexico.

"I was shocked by how many who seemed fine during the procedure were now having thoughts and feelings that no one had anticipated." The biggest thing she noted was that women felt sadder than they had anticipated. "They wondered, 'How can I feel sad about something I chose?'"

Abortion patients get more counseling than those undergoing any other medical procedure -- and still, Taft found, it was not safe for women to talk about abortion in their lives.

"Number one, it was supposed to be a secret," says Taft. "So these women had no idea who else in their lives had gone through this experience. Number two, we don't have good language even today for making a good, but complex, decision. Third, some women felt that if they said anything, it was ammunition to remove the right to choose. You either said you were fine or admitted you were a murderer."

Around that same time, in 1981, Peg Johnston was opening Southern Tier Women's Services, an independent abortion clinic in Binghamton, New York. Johnston, now 56, came out of a rape crisis counselor background. "Back then, rape was really controversial. People didn't believe that it was a problem."

A red diaper baby and the grand-niece of suffragist Elizabeth Freeman, Johnston had grown up with radical ideas and had a reputation as someone who could handle controversy. And she got it: Five years after Southern Tier opened, fellow Binghamton resident Randall Terry founded what would become the nation's most high-profile anti-abortion organization, Operation Rescue, and pioneered his strategy of blocking clinic entrances at Johnston's clinic.

Johnston kept her sense of humor, counter-picketing Operation Rescue, and posting a sign outside the clinic that read "Please Don't Feed the Protesters."

After a while, though, Johnston turned her attention from the protesters to her patients. "I don't know if I just started getting bored with Operation Rescue, but I definitely started to get interested in what women were saying instead," recalls Johnston. She'd hear the protesters say "You're killing your baby!" and then she'd sit in a counseling session with a woman who'd say, "I feel like I'm killing my baby."

At first, she says, she assumed that the patients were simply repeating what they'd heard outside, having internalized right-wing disinformation that Johnston needed to "correct." But "once I began listening more intently to her, I learned that she wasn't saying what the picketer was saying -- although she used the same words."

Johnston believes that women were struggling with the value of life, how to do the right thing and be a good person. "Frequently they were already mothers and they knew a time when, at that same stage of pregnancy, they had welcomed the life and felt like it was their baby," says Johnston. "They weren't mouthing an anti-choice message -- they were acknowledging that this was serious stuff. 'How can I want one kid and not the other?'"

During the course of counseling, Johnston would draw the disparate threads together. "I felt like they needed a place to say the worst and then work their way to the rightness of their decision. Some were on a journey to realize the power and responsibility of being a mother," Johnston says. "Which is that sometimes it's the power of saying no to a life."

Listening to patients -- and letting them use words like "baby" and "killing" -- is one of a number of innovations among abortion activists to break away from the calcified approach to abortions and abortion rights post-Roe. A clinic in Fargo, North Dakota (the only clinic in the state), has journals in the waiting and recovery rooms for patients to jot down thoughts. Many women wrote some version of "Don't think of it as losing a baby, but as gaining a guardian angel." These were women who clearly felt a relationship to a pregnancy as a child, not a mass of cells.

It is a sensitive moment to acknowledge this. Supporters of abortion rights have long been losing ground, while the pro-life world has recently had a call from President Bush commending them on their respect for life. The threat that legal abortion could be overturned has animated most strategic discussions of choice for the past three decades.

In the face of that defensiveness, there is a loose cadre of abortion providers who call themselves the November Gang -- a combination think-tank and support group named after the month in 1989 when they first met in response to the Supreme Court's Webster decision. Webster upheld a Missouri statute banning the use of public facilities for abortions and codified that most restrictions were fine, as long as they weren't too onerous for a woman. In other words, she might have to jump through many hoops on the way to the abortion -- from mandatory delays, to having to sell her car in order to pay for the procedure -- but if she could jump, then the hoops didn't conflict with Roe v. Wade.

The November Gang's mission is to "explore the work abortion providers are doing" simply by providing a space for the women to talk openly about their actual fears and experiences. Taft and Johnston are founding members. At first they focused on defense outside of the clinic -- would Roe stand? How much were they spending on security? But after a while, they began to discuss what happened within the clinic. Once they did, they began asking questions that shocked some of their colleagues. What if we showed fetal tissue to patients if they wanted to see it? Why are we protecting ourselves from what the patients are really saying?

Many of the clinicians do indeed offer to show fetal tissue to patients, and viewing it is often a relief to the patient. For her part, Johnston began developing the all-options element of counseling, saying to patients, "Okay, you have a complex decision to make and there are only three options. I focused on pregnancy, not abortion." She eventually created the Pregnancy Options Workbook ( www.pregnancyoptions.info) that is used at hundreds of clinics for counseling.

Charlotte Taft wrote the abortion section of the workbook. "We worked so hard to have abortion rights," says Taft, "not so that every woman could have an abortion, [but] so that women could have fuller experiences of their lives."

Projects that focus on telling women's stories are popping up around the country. Emily Barcklow, a 27-year-old from Seattle, Washington recently decided to create an abortion zine, Our Truths/Nuestras Verdades , to reflect women's experiences, which will launch in print and on the web in May 2005. I've been working on a documentary called Speak Out , a photo exhibit (by Tara Todras-Whitehill), and T-shirts that read, "I had an abortion."

Sarah Varney, a 32-year-old reporter for NPR, created radio documentaries in which older women tell their pre-Roe abortion stories. Varney also produced a series of events called the Beta Project to use the stories to help people talk about and understand abortion. Two other filmmakers, Faith Pennick and Penny Lane, are also completing documentaries. While Lane's focuses on younger feminists, Pennick's is called Silent Choices and explores the experiences of black women.

The experiences of women of color are particularly submerged in the terms of the mainstream debate. This fact is not lost on Loretta Ross, age 52, who has long worked to bridge the divide between women who get abortions, who are often lower-income and disproportionately black women, and abortion-rights advocates, who are often middle-class and white.

"If you're in the field, you know that black women are 12 percent of the female population but get 25 percent of the abortions in the country," says Ross, the co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice (SouthEnd Press, 2005). "Yet black women are saying this is not their issue. I have to ask why not." An organization Ross works with, Sister Song, was instrumental in changing the name of last year's pro-abortion rights demonstration in Washington from "March for Freedom of Choice" to "March for Women's Lives."

"We couldn't endorse the march unless they recognized the entire complex issues that women face," says Ross. "Every woman who is pregnant wonders if she has a bedroom for that child; can she afford to take off the time to raise that child? Why flatten the decisions around abortion to just abortion? When women don't have jobs or health care, where is the choice? There is nothing worse than a woman aborting a baby she wanted because she couldn't support it."

Ross notes that black women were the first to resist the pro-choice/anti-choice dichotomy. "A very large percentage of [black] women are personally opposed to abortion but are pro-choice," says Ross. "Women of color agree with not giving unborn children more rights than grown women, but even when they're terminating a pregnancy, they call it a baby. This has been going on as long as we have had the debate. What women of color mostly say is that we have the right to do decide what children are born or not, that is part of women's power."

Loretta Ross takes the long view. "The defensiveness that the pro-choice movement has is well earned," says Ross. "We've been shot at, picketed, fought every step. But I'm very glad that the conversation is changing."

"Rape crisis, birthing experiences, divorce law all got changed because women dared to speak the truth of their lives," says Peg Johnston. "If we can't hear women, then where are we?"

Jennifer Baumgardner is the creator of the "I Had An Abortion" project and on the advisory board for Exhale and Our Truths/Nuestros Verdades. She writes for various magazines, including Glamour and the Nation, and is co-author of "MANIFESTA: Young Women, Feminism and the Future." A version of this piece originally appeared in the Fairfield Weekly.