The mixture of excitement, nerves and anticipation will be felt by every woman gathered in the Roosevelt Room. Big, goofy grins, solemn, serious faces, nervous chatter, a hand held or two. We will be in our best clothes or the ones that make us feel the most comfortable, feel the most ourselves. Some of us will avoid each other’s gaze. I like to imagine that I will sit calmly, holding eye contact with the person across the room from me, and nod to her in recognition of this historic moment. Together, we will wait for him to arrive.
We are a room full of women who have had abortions and we are the first to ever be invited by a President of the United States to a White House meeting to tell our personal stories. This meeting is a public acknowledgment of our shared experiences and a statement of Presidential support and respect for every woman who has had an abortion. This is the first political step of a peaceful approach for resolving the abortion war.
For more than 35 years our country’s conversation about abortion has been stoked into a divisive war. It is time to begin the healing process and chart a new path for resolution. I believe abortion peace will exist when each woman who has lived this experience can tell her story and be supported, not shamed. A White House meeting focused on personal story-telling is a concrete and symbolic action that the President can take to demonstrate his intent to forge a new path for addressing abortion in the United States.
One in three women who will have an abortion in her lifetime, but our voices are seldom part of the public debate and there is little social understanding or acceptance for what we experienced. People go to war over our experiences, as we’ve become caricatures, myths, people to be mocked, feel sorry for, hide, shame, protect, or put on a pedestal. When we are acknowledged, it is often as pawns, prepped to tell prescribed version of events: “Abortion made me hate myself” or “Abortion brought me to life.” Our deeply personal stories are never accepted without concern for their political implications and portrayals of our stories in media and culture are far too often based in stereotypes and myth. We often do not even see ourselves in each other. This war has divided us too.
The truth is our stories and personal experiences with abortion are far more nuanced than the simplistic – and antagonistic – debate that rages around us. After my own abortion, I remember thinking that the public debate had virtually nothing to do with how I felt and what I needed. I remember feeling in awe of the fact that I could safely and medically end a pregnancy and realizing that my whole life wasn’t at the mercy of nature or circumstance. My decision to have an abortion felt like a decision to play God and that was powerful and scary beyond words. Choosing to not change my life was a life-changing experience for me. Afterward, I needed space and time and understanding to process all of this and reflect on my own values and beliefs about the meaning of life, including my own. But, when I tried to engage with the broader political debate over legal abortion, I was asked to simplify my decision and silence the emotional impact of my abortion in favor of defending my right to have had one in the first place, or to become a victim of abortion rights and deny my ability to cope and grow and be whole after such a life-changing experience.
I couldn’t believe the debate had sounded the same for so long, despite how much the world had changed and how many of us women, and our loved ones, have had their own experiences with abortion. Our rights, values, lives and needs are really what this debate is all about. How could the debate not respond to us and better reflect our experiences?
It must. Not only to be more supportive of women who have had abortions but because a more honest, reflective, responsive dialogue has the potential to overcome the years of damage the divisive debate has had on the health and well-being of our nation.
Roe v. Wade celebrated its 35th anniversary last year. In the next 35 years, the United States has the opportunity to have a very different conversation about abortion than it has for the past three decades. We can extend a baseline of universal respect for the beliefs others in our nation hold about abortion. Dialogue can replace war. Reproductive health policy can grow from our loved ones’ lives and needs and our media – books, TV, and films – can represent women who have had abortions as we truly are. How would our world change? Consider the debate over informed consent laws – laws that require doctors to tell women seeking abortion that they are terminating the life of a unique human bring. It is obvious that informed consent laws impinge on women’s right to access medical care free of state interference – and we can respond to informed consent laws by referencing women’s constitutional rights. But we can also respond by asking women who have had abortions what kind of relationship with a provider would have been most helpful to them in considering and seeking out abortion. If our response to informed consent laws were informed by research on what type of information and counseling would have helped women seeking abortions feel best supported and informed, we could learn about significant gaps in services that must be remedied, unnecessary hoops that could be eliminated, and best practices to be promoted. Most importantly, this approach focuses the debate back on women’s own, personal, specific and real needs for information and counseling.
What if the voices and experiences of women who have had abortions were featured in major women’s publications, and treated with the same level of respect and significance as given advice about how to best cope with divorce or find the right gynecologist? What if there were online support groups in which women who have had abortions could come together and connect with each other without fear of targeting or attack? If we review and assess potential policy through the lens of women’s real, lived experiences with abortion, and we create public forums for women to speak for themselves, we can build a more open, more respectful, process for making these important decisions, one that invites new voices and opens up new ways to understand abortion and its role in our society.
This approach will ensure the debate is about real people with real problems and real needs. And women’s responses will point the way towards peace by revealing new opportunities for engagement, connection and actual dialogue. I don’t know where this path will lead, but I do know that if we let ourselves listen to women’s lived experiences, our individual opinions about abortion will be anchored by and respectful of the reality of women’s lives.
It is exactly the right time to take up the cause of abortion peace and President Obama is just the man for the job. He can begin by taking yet another unprecedented, historical step to build unity in place of partisanship. A White House meeting to publicly acknowledge the experiences of women who have had abortions is a peaceful approach to transforming the abortion war and sets a tone for new possibilities for the next 35 years of abortion in the United States.