Motorists crossing the Bay Bridge into Oakland recently have been greeted by a billboard proclaiming Abortion Hurts Women. Besides promoting the upcoming San Francisco Walk for Life it offers women a number to call, asking “are you hurting?” If only there was a second billboard with a number for women who “feel alone,” a third billboard for those who “are grateful and relieved” and a fourth for those who “believe they did the best they could” and on, and on, all the way up I-80 past Sacramento, to the border of Oregon, and across the country. That’s how many billboards you would need to reflect the diverse experiences women and their loved ones have with abortion.
Better yet, what if one phone number that welcomed and accepted each woman’s unique experience of abortion – from relief and empowerment to sadness and grief – could offer the support and respect these women deserve? Luckily, the San Francisco Bay Area is home to just this service: Exhale. Started in 2002 by five women who were unable to find post-abortion counseling free of judgment and politics, they started the nation’s only post-abortion talkline serving all women with all abortion experiences. Now available nationwide and in multiple languages, the talkline offers women and men something they are unable to find in their everyday lives: someone who cares and listens without judgment, agenda or preconception.
The truth is, nearly a third of women will have an abortion in their lifetime and their experiences and feelings are as diverse as they are. Yet, there is little social understanding or acceptance for what they went through and what they need. Abortion remains taboo, a big secret, something to hide rather than share. The billboard doesn’t help women and for many it will do more than harm then good. Caring about the emotional well-being of women who have had abortions does not happen with blanket slogans and assumed emotions. Rather, it demands listening to every person’s story and promoting the well-being of every woman who has had an abortion.
What hurts me is imagining the thousands of women who have had an abortion who drive past this billboard every day only to be reminded again, and again, that their unique experience remains invisible. It doesn’t need to be this way. There is room for all our truths to be represented, in the conversations we have, the movies we watch, in the books we read, and yes, even on the billboards we drive past every day. My billboard would say: Call and be heard.