*Guest Post by Aimee Thorne-Thomsen
At the request of Exhale’s Founder and visionary leader, Aspen Baker, I read a provocative paper by Eyal Rabinovitch, Can Listening to Women Who Have Had Abortions Bring Peace to the Abortion Wars? I have long supported Exhale’s work and consider Aspen an amazing colleague as well as a good friend. When she asked me to read the paper and comment, I thought it would be interesting. And to be honest, I’m an undercover nerd, so reading this paper sounded like fun. This analysis situates Exhale’s work in the context of conflict transformation marks yet another advance by Exhale to change the cultural and political climate surrounding abortion. This is the heart of Exhale’s public education work, a unique approach it calls Pro-Voice. As such, the author poses an important question about the ongoing toxic fights about abortion – is it possible to achieve peace by locating women’s experiences with abortion front and center?
My best guess is maybe, and let me explain why.
To center women’s real abortion experiences in all their richness and complexity presents a huge departure for all sides in terms of how abortion is discussed and fought over in this country. Specifically, it would catalyze change politically and culturally, as well as personally. The emergence of the Tea Party and examples of blatant racism directed at our African-American President remind us that we’re not so good with massive change. Despite the numerous criticisms of the status quo, many people and organizations have invested a lot of time, money, and resources in the status quo. I’m talking about the political parties, yes, and obviously the large institutions that dominate the abortion conversation. But I am also talking about smaller organizations. As toxic as the abortion climate is, these players are not going to readily cede their power over the conversation, the funding, or the legislation. In this case, as in many others, “power only yields to stronger power.” Therefore, Pro-Voice advocates will have to build a broad and deep movement to challenge the abortion establishment.
The second challenge I foresee in Pro-Voice transforming the abortion conflict concerns the need for new voices. All interested parties in the abortion wars to have degenerated to using flat, and often, incomplete depictions of these women to advance their agendas. Opening up the conversations to reflect the truths of women and abortion requires different narratives and messengers. We need to encourage women to come out of the shadows and share their stories with abortion. We also need to devote resources to building their skills and leadership in shifting the abortion climate. Before we can do that, however, we need to create safe spaces for women to share their experiences, feelings and ideas. There are real questions of safety – emotional and physical – for women who reveal their abortion experiences. We have to address issues before we can ask women to risk themselves in leading this culture shift. There is also the question of expecting women to become public figures around abortion. Will this reinforce the silencing of women if they are unable or unwilling to share their experiences?
Finally, if a Pro-Voice lens pushes us to look at the world differently, then what does that look like? Specifically, what is does the practical application of the Pro-Voice framework? I can imagine how it changes cultural discussions or media coverage of abortion. What does abortion policy, legislation, even jurisprudence look like through a Pro-Voice lens? Until we have some ideas about what the framework does in that sphere, many advocates will be reluctant to fully embrace it. At this moment, the Pro-Voice framework offers advocates great potential to really shift how our culture thinks about abortion and the women who get them. Without real-life, real-time examples of what Pro-Voice looks like in practice, however, it feels incomplete. I appreciate and support the vision that Exhale offers through its Pro-Voice lens, but I also need to see its tangible effects. Until then, I remain hopeful but skeptical.
Aimee Thorne-Thomsen is the former executive director of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project and a nationally-renowned reproductive justice leader. She blogs for GoddessRising, Feministing and the Abortion Gang.