All the Support, None of the Guilt

Young women seeking abortions have to deal with a double-edged sword. Many feel guilty, ashamed and stupid for having an unwanted pregnancy. At the same time, they often have to be brave and independent. They face personal and logistical challenges and have to make decisions alone. So, it makes sense that they need support, and that there would be services out there to offer that support.

There are a number of organizations out there that do what they call post-abortion counseling. Depending on where in the country they are found, they have names like: Healing Hearts, National Memorial for the Unborn, Institute for Pregnancy Loss, Victims Of Choice, Inc., and Sav-A-Life, etc. Many are simply called "Pregnancy Care and Education Centers," or PACE centers and most, if not all, are linked with religious groups.

These organizations look to reinforce the idea that abortion is wrong, but their tactic is generally to zero-in on those who may already be feeling guilt about the abortion. Many rely heavily on the term Post Abortion Syndrome (PAS).
Youth Empowerment or Judgmental Rhetoric?

A lot of after-abortion agencies hope to make young women who are experiencing guilt into anti-choice advocates. One recent Web site called Stand Up Girl calls itself "a site where girls share the truth about unwanted pregnancy." At first, this sounds promisingly open-ended and a first-time visitor may feel heartened by it's implied neutrality. But, the site is also "hosted" by a young woman named Becky who, through a short flash video, talks about "making the right decision." The quote along side the page by Delores Riorden of the pop group The Cranberries that reads "Every time a girl has an abortion it just crushes her self-esteem smaller and smaller" and the option to "take a glimpse into the cool world within the womb via 3-D ultrasound" make it pretty clear that there is no neutrality involved.

As in so many other aspects of elective abortion, the pro-life and pro-choice sides disagree over the existence of PAS. Many anti-choice or "pro-life" groups conclude that a large percentage of women who have undergone an abortion experience PAS as both serious depression, and massive feelings of guilt. Many pro-choice advocates from secular groups agree that PAS exists, but believe that it is rare. A commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association describes PAS as a rare post-abortion phenomenon.

The important aspect of anti-choice organizations doing post-abortion counseling is not their belief in the existence of PAS but the way they use the guilt and sadness that it involves. The Catholic Web site Hope After Abortion is a good example. It takes young women on a clear path from confusion to a belief that what they have done is, indeed, wrong. Although this organization and dozens like it do offer one kind of support, it is the kind that comes with great judgment and criticism.

"The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and ... does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. "

Although there are quite a few of these resources all over the country, some women don't even have the option to access PACE centers. When Aspen Baker had an abortion in 1999 she says she was shocked to find no resources offered at all. "There was no brochure," she said, "no business card, no mention of feelings at all."

So Baker began to research abortion and got involved with active organizations that fought for women's reproductive rights. In this process she encountered many other women who had similar experiences where they were offered no resources or support.

As pro-choice women they felt anti-choice organizations neglected their feelings and emotions. They knew many other women would end up feeling isolated, unable to talk about or receive support for their experience. After many discussions and research, Aspen and other pro choice activists decided to create a service that was free, anonymous, confidential and flexible to the needs of women and girls. Thus began the Exhale hotline.

Exhale is a grassroots organization that provides an after-abortion counseling talk line. They are completely volunteer-run and are the nation's first organization designed specifically to meet the emotional needs of women and girls after an abortion, with complete respect to their reproductive freedom. Exhale offers non-judgmental emotional support, resources and information, to women and girls who have had abortions, their partners, allies, friends and family members.

Exhale is designed to help create a safe way for young women to feel the guilt, grief, shame and sadness that often comes after an abortion. Because, as Baker puts it, these feelings are "normal and natural." But, she is also quick to point out, "[these feelings] don't make abortion wrong."

"Remember, we have similar feelings when we break up, lose a job, or leave a community," she continues. "Luckily these aren't politicized acts and we are allowed to find comfort in sharing with our friends and family about how we feel. Because abortion is so politicized, because we don't know how our friends and family will respond when we tell them...or because if we call [an anti-choice counseling service] we must admit regret and join an anti-choice agenda, many of us keep our feelings to ourselves."

The Exhale talk line is staffed by trained peer counselors who work to provide support in a non-judgemental way. As Baker puts it, women are unique, and they all need different things after an abortion. "I think some young women need to be alone," she says. "I think some young women need to cry, to write, to surround themselves with people and things they love. I think some young women need to talk and talk and talk."
What's most important to know about anti-choice organizations doing post-abortion counseling, is not their belief in the existence of Post Abortion Syndrome (PAS) but the way they use the guilt and sadness that it involves.

Exhale is not alone in its effort to provide support in ways that respect women's reproductive freedom. There are others doing this work. Many groups do have religious affiliation, but aim at being non-judgemental. Some are national interfaith coalitions for choice, which have been created by young people in their campuses and communities. Two good examples of this are: Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom or the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

A testament to the fact that young women can get through the difficult parts of having an abortion is the fact that so many seem to go on to becoming advocates or activists to support others. Like many activists, these women are using what they've learned to make change for other people. As Baker put it, "There are a number of rockin' young women out there, fighting against the prison industrial complex, fighting for racial justice, fighting against sexual assault and harassment, and fighting for reproductive freedom... What is inspiring to me is that young women are immersing themselves in the complexity of our society, because young women live that complexity, especially in regards to reproductive health."

The Exhale hotline operates in the San Francisco, Monday through Friday, between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m (Pacific Standard Time). The number for their hotline is 1-866-4-EXHALE.

Kristi Lee, 19, is a youth editor at Health Initiatives for Youth in San Francisco, CA.

For an added resource, check out the online workbook called "Pregnat? Need Help?"

This is the third and final piece in a three-part series.
Part I: " Ignorance Is Bliss: Preaching Abstinence in America" by Virginia Pelley

Part II "Something to Learn: Looking at Sex Ed in Europe" by Melissa Harris

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