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Archive for October, 2009

I Was Wrong

“Abortion is not the go-to gag for a laugh,” I wrote last year in what I thought was an edge-pushing issue of Our Truths-Nuestras Verdades, Exhale’s bilingual abortion zine. After past issues on such heady topics as stigma, family, pregnancy and feelings about the fetus, Exhale decided it was time to branch out. We chose humor.

At the time, we had been laughing about, “smashmortion,” kind of, and had laughed, maybe, with Sarah Silverman. We didn’t imagine a censored Family Guy episode or that Cartman would fall in love with abortion.

I thought it was safe to say that abortion was not the center of very many jokes. I am here to say: I was wrong.

Not only is abortion funny, it is quickly becoming the new go-to-gag for a laugh.

And, herein lies the problem. Abortion humor, like abortion politics, seems to have nothing to do with the actual women who have had them. It’s like the weird dancing baby of Ally McBeal or Tom Delay shaking his rump on Dancing with the Stars. Abortion humor feels like a very strange, alternate universe where it’s normal to have a pet robot and drink your food.

Abortion humor treats abortion as if it’s something you buy at the seedy store with blacked out windows at the end of the dark ally and carried stealthily home only for you to hide it in the back of your pantry beside your secret stash of chocolate and vodka, hoping that no one will ever find it and know its yours.

But that’s not abortion. Abortion is an often emotional experience that involves a physically invasive medical procedure that happens inside a woman’s body and which, if done correctly, removes a growing fetus that would otherwise become a baby.

Abortion is not that funny. But, the women who have them certainly can be!

In our Humor issue, we did not want to make abortion something to laugh at. We wanted to find out what made women laugh about their own experiences. We wanted to know what they found funny.

A woman thought it was funny that after telling her boyfriend she was pregnant, he said: “Man, I didn’t really think I could get anyone pregnant because I’ve done so many drugs.” Another woman laughed that while she was waiting nervously in stirrups for her procedure to begin, a nurse came in and said: “your socks match your eyes.” When she founded out that after her abortion that her “dude wanted a receipt,” a woman found humor in the ridiculous.

Instead of abortion, Our Truths-Nuestras Verdades made women’s voices and stories the centerpiece of abortion humor. We weren’t laughing at them. We are still laughing with them.

But next time, I’m going to use all the money we spent on printing and mailing to go after Chelsea Handler or Margaret Cho and entice them with cookies (or sex toys) in exchange for a Funny or Die abortion video.

That should be really funny.

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Listen here. Start listening around 25 minutes.

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Dear Irene,

I was alerted to the pending release of your book, Impossible Motherhood, by a friend and when I read the summary, I thought: “Wow. That’s intense.”

I read in another article that you feared your “self-described ‘abortion addiction’ will be misunderstood” and that you only scheduled “closed-door interviews and will not do a book tour.” You also had to make “sure all public property records do not reflect [your] name, so [you] cannot be targeted at [your] home.”

You are quoted as saying: “I am worried about my safety and the hate mail.”

I just want you to know that I’m sorry you had to take these steps to protect yourself and your family (though I am very glad that you did) and I want to let you know that I’m thinking about you and wishing you well.

Beyond the real threat of physical violence that you undoubtedly face, I want to acknowledge the impact of how it can feel to have so many people judge and ridicule you for telling your story, in your own words, in your own time, in your own way. For an issue as fraught with controversy as abortion, where the only language we have is one of blame, defense and attack, talking personally about how you experienced one, or in your case, many, is unfortunately, not something most of us are used to. Most people really have no idea how to respond.

I know this is true because I too have had an abortion. This experience made me realize how ill-equipped most of our culture is to talk about the personal experience of having one which led me to found an organization called Exhale. We provide women and men a place to talk without fear of judgment. For nearly eight years, we have listened to thousands of women and men share their stories, their feelings, their needs, fears, and the hopes and dreams associated with an abortion experience through our national after-abortion talkline. Time and time again, we hear how the silence and stigma, how feeling alone and isolated, and how having no one and nowhere to turn to for comfort or care is one of the biggest obstacles for emotional wellbeing. We have found that the chance to speak one’s truth, to be believed, to be heard and supported, can be a transformative, empowering and healing process.

Another thing we have learned is how important it is for women to hear the stories of other women. Abortion is so common, but because we rarely talk about it, we lose the opportunity for connection with those who share this experience. Across the range of feelings, backgrounds, perspectives and values, something that women who have had abortions often talk about is their feeling of being alone. And yet, if they take the risk and reach out for support really bad things can happen to them (not always, lots of time people surprise us in great ways!). Things like being cut off from family and friends. Being targeted and harassed in the workplace or being shunned by your religious community are some of the experiences we hear about on our talkline. As I read the blog posts and articles (which I refuse to link to here) I can see that some pro-choice and some pro-life people think it is their right and their duty to shame, pity or judge you.

In this, you are definitely not alone. Many women have shared this experience.

This is why Exhale is pro-voice. We take a stand with every woman who has had an abortion and serve as a witness to her truth. We know your story is important and you deserve to be heard. We stand with you, Irene.

Irene, I don’t know if you’re crazy or sane, a truth-teller or an attention-grabber. I don’t know if you habitually put yourself in situations to be victimized or if this is a symbol of your personal healing and growth. You might be all of these things, or none of them. I have not even read your book.

I do care about who you are and your emotional wellbeing, and that is why it matters to me how you are treated as a woman who has had abortions and who has chosen to share her experiences publicly. While your story of repeat abortions may be shocking and your language of “abortion addict” controversial, any woman who tells her story with abortion publicly, including those stories which may be seen as sympathetic, risk similar kinds of attack. One abortion or thirty, rich or poor, brown or white, abused or safe, public abortion storytelling is never accepted.

I am very sure that is not a surprise to you. And yet, you did it anyway. For taking this risk, I cheer for you. I can’t imagine it was, or is, easy.

I don’t know that sharing our personal abortion stories will ever be easy, but surely the reactions can become a little more supportive and a little more respectful. One in three women will have an abortion in their life. It’s an incredibly common experience. For some it was the best decision, for others, the worst. Women can feel grief or heartache or hopeful and confident. There is no right or wrong way to experience abortion. It’s unique to every person.

Unfortunately, our public dialogue has not made room to hear these stories or to learn from them. It’s our mission at Exhale to change this. We seek to replace judgment with understanding and stigma with support. Not agreement or endorsement of someone’s decision or life choices. Only recognition of the very human need to be heard, and our own individual ability to meet that need.

We can all chose to listen.

I wish you and your family safety and wellness, Irene

Aspen Baker

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In 2008, Exhale and our community lost a very dear friend and ally. Rachel Falls, the Hotline Director at the National Abortion Federation (NAF), passed away after a long battle with brain cancer. Rachel was many wonderful things to many people. At Exhale, she will always be remembered as one of the first people to embrace our mission and promote our work. Rachel was a true pro-voice champion: she integrated post-abortion counseling into NAF’s services, collaborated with Exhale staff to train others in the field, and became a vocal advocate for promoting the emotional wellbeing of women who have had abortions. We continue to miss her mentorship, her leadership in the field, and most of all, her compassion for others.

To honor and recognize Rachel Falls for her contributions and impact, Exhale created the Rachel Falls Compassion Award. This award is given once a year to a talkline counselor who best embodies the spirit and values of Rachel Falls: exuberance, strength, empathy, commitment, vision, and compassion. Only fellow talkline counselors can nominate the potential winner. Last year, we were honored to award Elsa Valmidiano, who you can read about in our zine (pg.7).

This year, Exhale honors Jan, an Exhale counselor for over six years. In her time with Exhale she has served with distinction on the talkline and in capacities almost too numerous to mention. She has shared her personal abortion experience with new volunteer trainees, acted as a pro-voice ambassador at conferences, become a lead fundraiser for Exhale, and served on other task forces and groups. If we offer a leadership opportunity, we can be sure that Jan will take it!

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Jan has contributed so much over the years, and it is especially striking how she infuses her work with warmth, humor, and humanity. It is no surprise that she inspires us in everything she does! The qualities of “exuberance, strength, empathy, commitment, vision, and compassion” emanate from her.

Here are a few excerpts from nominations she received from her fellow volunteers:

“Jan is a superstar. She is always one of the first to take on leadership positions… she has been a prime example of living Exhale’s pro-voice mission… And, of course, that she’s been doing this wonderful work for so long is an inspiration.”

“I nominate Jan. She is not only a stalwart veteran to the talkline who still takes shifts devoutly every month, but she contributes by paving an amazing path in the pro-voice movement with her presence and her voice… Her perseverance and strength as a counselor to help women today on the line always amazes me, where Jan continues to connect to each and every caller no matter what generation, race, gender, or class. Go Jan!”

In honor of her award, I sat down with Jan to ask her a few questions about her experience with Exhale as a volunteer. Here is what she said.

What first brought you to Exhale?

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Stephanie Salter wrote glowingly about this new organization in the Bay Area, a talkline for callers post abortion. I read it, was intrigued and called. They were interviewing for new counselors and that interview was the most comprehensive, intense, thought-provoking one I’d ever been involved in. I ‘passed’ and was in the next training class, a class that was as thorough and as wide-ranging as the interview had suggested.

You’ve been volunteering for more than six years. Tell me about what it means to you.

It’s a rare call that does not end with my feeling Exhale makes a difference in individual lives, that I have just made a difference. Callers who are relieved and those who are in great pain are grateful for the non-judgmental, pro-voice place from which we are there to support them, to listen to their story (often told for the first time), or to work on a ‘self-care’ list with them. It’s a consistently positive experience for me.

After listening to so many women and men tell their stories with abortion on the talkline, what have you learned?

The decision to have an abortion is not one taken lightly and it’s often done with very little support. Because the dialogue around the topic has become ever more rancorous, most callers have not had the benefit of ‘talking it out’ with anyone. The stigma is great. I’ve come to believe that the dialogue has been ‘hijacked’ by the guilt inducing voices who rarely, if ever, care about the individual. Like the woman who was overjoyed about her pregnancy until it was discovered that her child would not survive outside the womb and who knew that her last 4 months of pregnancy would include constant broad smiles from passersby while she knew there would be no happy outcome; the father of the girl who is still a child herself who has an abortion and word gets out in his small, non-supportive community and church and the whispering is getting to him; the young woman I insist write down the suicide hotline number…these are among the reasons why I continue.

What do you wish everyone knew about women who have had abortions?

That one in three of us will have had an abortion before 45, so despite the dearth of conversation about the issue, it’s a very common experience. Walking down the street just count one, two, three and get a clear picture of the variety of women who just might have walked in your shoes. There might be some comfort in that and I hope that would encourage more women to speak out about their experience. It’s you, me, your neighbors both rich and poor, across the age, income and political spectrum who have had the procedure. Enough with the stigmatization.

Do you have any advice for people interested in volunteering at Exhale?

Call for your interview if you can give some time to a most worthwhile endeavor. You are needed, you will be valued and the personal reward is assured.

Thank you, Jan, for your continued excellent service to Exhale and the women we serve. Please join me in wishing Jan congratulations on her award by posting your well-wishes in the comments!

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We Create the Future

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