Ten years ago this week, I had an abortion.
At the time, as most of my readers know by now, there was very little attention paid to the emotional experiences of women post-abortion. Some clinics provided counseling sometimes, but there was no universally-accepted standard of emotional care being promoted or adopted by abortion or other reproductive health providers. Some research on women’s emotions around abortion had been done, but mostly it was done to determine if abortion alone could cause mental illness. It doesn’t. There was basically no political discussion, public message or communications strategy intended to honor or reflect the diverse emotional experiences women have with abortion. Instead, most pro-choice political advocates, when called to comment on women’s emotional experiences said some version of: “most women feel relief.” Not untrue. But not enough.
This was the landscape into which I entered the “world of all things abortion-related” when me and my co-founders decided to start Exhale. These were the problems we saw. We addressed them with a three-tiered strategic response:
1) to provide direct emotional support to women post-abortion and help others do the same;
2) advocate for increased research on women’s emotional experiences with abortion to create more understanding and acceptance and;
3) to shift the public and political discussion around abortion so that it is based in women’s real, lived experiences.
As advocates and leaders, it can often be hard to see, or document, your impact on the mission you set out to achieve. Over the last 10-years, there are many things that I can look back upon and say, that as a result of Exhale, something has changed. I can think about all the women and men who found someone to listen when no one else would by calling Exhale. I think about all the amazing volunteers who have been a part of growing our organization and the personal and professional rewards they have experienced as a result of their contributions. I think about every pro-voice article and blog post that let women know they matter, that their voices, feelings and experiences matter. I think about the chills I get every time I hear someone else say “pro-voice” or “women who have had abortions” or “the emotional experience of abortion” because none of these things were accepted, understood or important topics of public conversation. All of these things help me see the difference Exhale has made over the last 10-years since I had my abortion.
Exhale was able to make this difference because so many people cared to be a part of making change. Women and men from all walks of life saw the value – or personally experienced the need for – listening to the voices of women after abortion. These people came to Exhale to serve as volunteers, board members, staff, consultants, donors, allies, advocates and ambassadors. Or perhaps, they never came directly to Exhale because they found a way to carry the message in their own way because it was their message all along. The idea of pro-voice – of listening to the voices of those most impacted by an issue, of those who have lived it – is not a new concept, it just hadn’t been applied to abortion recently.
I am also proud of how Exhale has become a place for kindred spirits to gather together in order to use our individual strengths and talents to pursue a shared mission, a shared goal. Together, we have truly become champions for women who have had abortions and for their voices to shape the debate.
And, there is one thing, one change, one impact, in particular that makes me downright giddy. There is one thing that feels big, big, big and super duper important. Its exactly the kind of thing I had hoped would happen and didn’t know exactly how to make it happen. It helps me see that change is always possible.
The Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health Program at UCSF has launched a whole research program area on the “Social and Emotional Aspects of Abortion.” Under this umbrella they have a number of different research projects designed to “contextualize and depolarize the debate around women’s emotional responses to abortion.”
This is how ANSIRH describes the program:
The Social and Emotional Aspects of Abortion (SEAA) Program is a collection of research projects aimed at understanding how women’s lived experiences of abortion are influenced by their own life situations; by the attitudes and actions of others; by viewpoints women encounter or expect to find in their immediate communities, in the media, or on the internet; and by judicial, political, religious, and scientific debates regarding abortion.
Projects in the SEAA program utilize both qualitative and quantitative research methods to investigate women’s anticipated feelings about having an abortion, the feelings they experience during their abortion care and afterward, the availability, timing and types of social and emotional support for women who have abortions, and the challenges that abortion providers face in meeting women’s social and emotional needs related to abortion care. Projects in the SEAA program are also concerned with social stigma surrounding abortion and how women experience and manage stigma when they have had an abortion.
Ten years after my abortion, the emotional experience of women who have had abortions is front and center in reproductive health research.
Ten years from now, I look forward to pointing out how women’s voices are front and center in the abortion discussion.
Double Yeee Hawwww!!!
Celebrate with me!
This celebration would not be complete without recognizing one person in particular: Tracy Weitz, the Director of ANSIRH. You can’t run a program if you can’t fund it, and you can’t fund it unless you fundraise for it, and you won’t fundraise for it unless you prioritize it. To Tracy – thank you for making it a priority!