Exhale has been honored to have Frances Kissling as a member of our National Advisory Council for many years. I have always admired her leadership, especially her tenacity and ability to get people talking and thinking about abortion in ways we’re not used to, at least publicly. Eyal Rabinovitch and I were glad to have her early reading and input into his paper, “Can Listening to Women Who Have Had Abortions Bring Peace to the Abortion Wars?” Ms. Kissling brings a wealth of experience and knowledge into the challenges and opportunities for listening around abortion and I was thrilled that she accepted my invitation for an interview to talk candidly about her experiences and the challenges she sees ahead.
Me: Tell me about your professional background and the current focus of your work.
Frances: I’ve been involved in abortion rights in a variety of roles since it became legal in NY in 1970 and I became the director of one of the first legal clinics, working on service provision in the US and in Italy, Austria and Mexico as well as the US till 1975 when I became the first director and was one of the founders of the national abortion federation, so women’s narratives were part of my daily life. In the late 1970’s I was invited to serve on the board of Catholics for Choice and a few years later became the president. I felt then as I do now that social change rarely happens in the center, but rather at the margins of culture where there is greater freedom to speak one’s mind and try other things. I also felt strongly that it was simply not possible to deal with the nuances and complexity of abortion in political work which involves largely yes or no answers, at CFFC, it was possible to deal with the moral and therefore personal dimensions of choice, to have a discourse that embraced ambiguity. I left CFC in 2007, feeling I had done as much as I could as the “woman who makes the Pope sweat” and was interested in exploring whether there were new ways to think and talk about abortion and have since then written extensively on that topic. I am slowly working on a book of essays on the issues that most challenge orthodoxy for both those who are prolife and those of us who are prochoice.
Me: The voices and stories of women who have had abortions have been used – in a variety of ways – to try to shift public opinions and attitudes about abortion over the years. Given this history, can you share some of your experiences and observations about these attempts?
Frances: Well, my first exposure to stories was in the clinics I worked in where women and those who come with them pour out their stories. It was here I learned that very few women were not interested in exploring whether or not abortion was the right decision for them. The biggest story for me was that of Rosie Jimenez, the Texan woman who died as a result of a botched abortion when the Hyde amendment went into effect. With Ellen Frankfurt, I wrote the story of Rosie’s life and death and her determination to risk her life to make a life for herself and the daughter she already had. On the larger political scale, there have been many projects that brought women’s stories to the public; TV programs as early as 1972 followed women. A notable project was by a woman named Martha Stuart who had a program called “Are You Listening?” and did several long group interviews with women who had decided to have abortion and some who had not. These were very powerful. There were many speak outs on campus and a larger NARAL campaign “ We are your sisters, daughters, etc. I remember being in a park for one of them and watching women tell their stories. Women’s stories were gathered for amicus briefs in various Supreme Court cases.
Me: What are the lessons you have taken from these situations?
Frances: Some of these efforts I thought were very effective, usually the ones that did not emanate in the movement and took a broader look, avoiding drawing political conclusions. I found when women were interviewed and there was an exchange with an interviewer, they drew out a more complete picture. Frankly, the political ones I found embarrassing and in a sense degrading to the women, not intentionally, but the heavy overlay of anger directed at opponents of abortion made women less sympathetic. And, there was a way in which I felt women who stood up all alone at a mike appeared as if they were defendants in some form of trial and those listening were a jury. The events were too stark and too stereotypical. The obligatory Holly Near song and postcards handed out to let your representative know, etc.
Me: Looking forward, what opportunities do you see for listening to women’s stories with abortion? And challenges?
Frances: First, the act of abortion itself is an extremely strong negative visual. Even though many people in the abstract accept it as a necessary event they simple do not want to think about it. Every woman who has had an abortion and tells her story forces people to confront that act in its individual reality, a specific woman for certain reasons decided that our presumption as a society that creating and nurturing new life is a good thing was not a good thing in her situation. Few stories are powerful enough to trump discomfort at the act of abortion. Second, we are not in general good at listening to anyone, especially women. A woman who tells her story who is empowered, comfortable with her decision and does not play victim is hard for many people to take. I don’t have a good answer about how those challenges can be overcome and think a lot of thought needs to be given to that which I know Exhale is doing. And, there are not a lot of opportunities or a lot of women willing to subject themselves to that kind of scrutiny (these are good instincts for self preservation.)
Me: What advice would you give to pro-voice people who want to create more forums for listening to people’s personal abortion stories?
Frances: I think personal stories might better be part of a larger attempt to make it possible for people to share what they think about abortion whether they had an abortion or not. In roe, Blackmun said “women are not isolated in their pregnancies”. It is one of my favorite lines of the decision. I think likewise women should not be isolated by their narratives. Narratives as context for a broad discussion in which the opinion of each person is taken seriously might work better. The most powerful work I have seen and done with people is the classic case study approach where a narrative is presented and then a skilled discussion leader draws people out to talk about that narrative, enriching it, adding different dimensions, etc. I don’t think women should tell their stories to an audience; they should be part of a conversation.
Me: And, a personal question to a leader I have long admired: what drives your leadership today?
Frances: I am driven by the changes I have seen in the way the American people think about abortion. I believe there is a much stronger sentiment against abortion at any time in the last 50 years. The pressure and demands of day to day movement leadership in traditional forms have made it extremely difficult for new thinking, not just new strategies to emerge. I am driven to put out ideas, to challenge conventional truths, ask hard questions and hope that that provides a spark for those who are living with the same concerns to work toward a new way of thinking about abortion. I said earlier that I think there is little listening going on in the world of advocacy and politics. The reality is when you do listen to people who disagree with you, you might find as I have that one side does not have all the answers or values, even where abortion is concerned.
Thank you Frances Kissling!