Archive for November, 2010

New advocates from around the world are finding fresh ways to champion the pro-voice message in their own communities.

Erika Jackson, an Exhale volunteer loves talking about the pro-voice message.  She writes:

I find that people are looking for a new framework to view abortion – one which honors the significance of a personal experience.  These conversations inspire me to keep sharing and listening.”

Sry Ginting, a theology student in Indonesia, used Facebook Causes to make a birthday wish and raise money for Exhale.

Cynthia Benedict Goering, a psychotherapist in Seattle, is starting a therapy group for women who have had abortions with the goals of enhancing health and well-being in women; promoting acceptance and empowerment; and expanding the conversation about abortion with respect and dignity.

Julie Evans, a talkline caller who shared her personal abortion story with you over the summer, completed a marathon to raise awareness about pro-voice. Julie raised over $500 for Exhale from her friends and family.  Julie writes:

“Hopefully me running 26.2 miles, proudly wearing the Exhale logo, will inspire other women and men to speak up, reach out and listen.”

We asked our volunteers: What does Pro-Voice Mean to You?

Grace:Pro-voice means never having to apologize for what you feel.”

Salvador: “Pro-voice means the right, the freedom, and the opportunity to openly share my unique experience, my story, my feelings, and my emotions without criticism and judgment.  It means the privileged to make my voice heard, validated, and respected, a non-judgmental approach that strives to learn and praise every person’s unique experience with abortion.”

Alice:Pro-voice means a conviction that everyone’s personal experience with and feelings around abortion deserve a space to be heard, respected and validated.  Sometimes these aren’t the feelings that we’re comfortable sharing – they can be messy, contradictory, frustrating and just flat-out unpleasant to deal with.  But the experiences that people have around abortion aren’t all tidy or easy to deal with, and yet they still need to be recognized – for our individual well-being as well as for the sake of any progress in the public discussion around abortion.”

Susan: “Being pro-voice is valuing the input of everyone who is and who should be part of the discussion. It’s not about being right or wrong, but being heard.”

Holly: “We have no agenda. We are simply here to listen, to witness, and to help individuals build their own healing narrative. We want to hear the truth, from people who have personal experiences with abortion. We believe in the power of communication through voice, and envision a future in which all women and persons touched by abortion are able to speak freely about it as with any other experience.

Watch more volunteers share about what Pro-Voice means to them in our video:

What does Pro-Voice mean to You?


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Kate Cockrill, a researcher who studies stigma and abortion at UCSF, recently wrote about her attendance at the Princeton Open Hearts/Open Minds conference on the blog of ANSIRH (a Pro-Voice High-Five Awardee for New Research).   In contemplating the lack of women’s voices at the conference, Kate poses some good questions about the role of women who have had abortions in public discussion.  She writes:

If 1.3 million women have an abortion every year, then why is it that so few women speak publicly or even privately about their abortions? What would happen if women began to speak up? How would it change the debate? I think that it is safe to say that the prochoice movement is a movement for women who are considering abortions or need abortions. It is a legal movement oriented toward preserving the right to abortion.

Addressing the role of stigma in women’s silence, Kate writes:

Stigma is clearly a major culprit in women’s public silence about their abortions. To talk about one’s abortion publicly is to risk losing credibility on a variety of levels. But there are many other reasons that women don’t talk publicly about their abortions. Maybe the reason for their own abortion is not the reason they are attempting to highlight in their advocacy. Maybe they don’t want to upset a family member or ex-partner who might be sensitive to their decision. Maybe it feels like a private experience that they don’t want to explore publicly at that moment. Maybe it still feels raw. Maybe it just doesn’t feel salient anymore.

No matter the reason, speaking about a personal abortion experience publicly means taking on personal risk. Instead of asking where the voices are, we could work harder to reduce the risk that women incur when they speak from their own experience. We can and should be demonstrating and demanding nonjudgmental listening. We should encourage honesty and should support a range of experiences. We should not discriminate against some experiences while highlighting others. We should support private spaces for women to discuss their experiences with those who can listen and understand, better yet, people who have also “been there.” We should demand that all women have access to emotional care at the time of their abortion and after. In fact, I would argue that when these demands are absent from our advocacy, we aren’t really advocating for women who have had abortions.

Women who have abortions do not live in a world of nonjudgmental support. When their own abortion is at issue they can expect judgment, criticism and rejection.  So many women are very careful about who they share their experience with or who they seek support from. In fact if you do not personally know someone who has had an abortion, it’s most likely because you are not considered a safe person to tell. While politically-motivated public and private disclosure is encouraged by both sides of the debate, the real stories of real women are not adequately supported by either side of the public debate.  So, when women don’t come forward with their stories…we have to wonder if we’re partly to blame.

In relating how she experienced the conference, Kate summarizes:

Conversations like the ones I had at OHOM may not bring us any closer to common ground on the abortion issue; however, I think they do promote a common culture based on values that can be shared by either side. Curiosity. Dignity. Respect. Peace.

Thank you Kate!

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Earlier, this year, Exhale formed a partnership with our Pro-Voice High-Five awardee for Leadershipthe Center for Digital Storytelling – to pilot a workshop where women could create their own digital stories about having had an abortion and being an abortion listener.  Through this workshop, we learned a lot about the role stigma plays in public storysharing, what it means to ask women to tell their abortion stories, as well as for an audience to listen to stories, and the experience of sharing personal abortion stories.

As part of our ongoing learning process about public abortion story-sharing, we took the stories on the road last week and showed them to a new audience.  The Abortion Access Project invited us to share our stories with advocates and providers in Seattle.  Exhale leaders, including me, our Director of Programs, Jovida Ross; Board Member Julie Davdison-Gomez, and Pro-Voice Ambassador Erika Jackson, had an engaging discussion about the process of creating the stories, and our collective ideas for what we can all do to promote respectful forums for storysharing.

We asked the audience to record their responses as they watched each digital story.  Here is just a sampling of the dozens of responses we received:

  • “Reminded me how much abortion is interwoven into so many other stories.  It’s not just about the abortion.”
  • “Made me think about what we gain by being a part of other women’s abortion experiences.”
  • “The story exemplifies the duality of regret and relief and transforms it into something new.”
  • “It is always such a good reminder that the most powerful thing we can do for someone is to let them be with their feelings whatever they are.”
  • “Inspired.  I related to her story.”

Jovida Ross introduces the stories:

Erika Jackson shares her experience of making the story while I listen:

Erika, Jovida, Deb from AAP, and me afterwards:

Thank you for hosting us Seattle!  We had a great time and learned a lot.

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*Guest Blogger*

Nat Okey, Exhale Volunteer:

The recent media attention over the Twitter thread, “#ihadanabortion”, reveals the deep difference between online networking and social change.  I hope that every woman who tweeted about her abortion found the experience to be a positive one, and yet in order to have a lasting effect on the abortion debate, the campaign must be connected to a broader culture change agenda.

Recently, best-selling author and cultural commentator, Malcolm Gladwell, wrote in the New Yorker magazine about the difference between the weak ties of social networking and the strong ties needed for social change. He makes his point that people take on great personal risks, like violence or death, in order to change culture because of strong ties, with examples of the early lunch counter sit-ins and the Freedom Summer campaign. On the other hand, weak social ties, like the kind we have with people on Facebook or Twitter, don’t give us what is really needed to face our own fears and the real risks to our lives or livelihoods.

The problem of weak social ties played out with #ihadanabortion, as it quickly became politicized and was used as another culture war proxy.  The thread digressed to include pleas for people to go sign a Planned Parenthood petition, amongst many other things.   You can’t have a transformative conversation, which is necessary to change the debate, in 140 characters or less with anonymous strangers with constant tangents being introduced.  The multitudes of nuance that the abortion debate contains and which must be respected can not be adequately addressed by tweeting.

Instead of trying to speak to the masses one tweet at a time, we should focus on supporting women who have had abortions, as it is their relationships with their own friends and family that will prove the tipping point to cultural change. When people have strong personal ties to you, they will view an issue differently if it affects you. Where once something was unacceptable, through their prism of you they can see and feel the issue differently.

Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe this in their new book, American Grace.  In a recent review in the New York Times, Robert Wright discusses this effect in regards to LGBT people in the U.S. and how our society has become much more accepting with relative quickness:

Putnam and Campbell favor the “bridging” model. The idea is that tolerance is largely a question of getting to know people. If, say, your work brings you in touch with gay people or Muslims — and especially if your relationship with them is collaborative — this can brighten your attitude toward the whole tribe they’re part of. And if this broader tolerance requires ignoring or reinterpreting certain scriptures, so be it; the meaning of scripture is shaped by social relations.

The bridging model explains how attitudes toward gays could have made such rapid progress. A few decades ago, people all over America knew and liked gay people — they just didn’t realize these people were gay. So by the time gays started coming out of the closet, the bridge had already been built.

And once straight Americans followed the bridge’s logic — once they, having already accepted people who turned out to be gay, accepted gayness itself — more gay people felt comfortable coming out. And the more openly gay people there were, the more straight people there were who realized they had gay friends, and so on: a virtuous circle.

Once people realize that their co-workers, partners, friends and family members have had abortions, we can develop our own Pro-Voice virtuous circle.

This kind of bridge-building work won’t happen through Twitter.  As Gladwell writes, online social networking is

a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections… It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”

A Twitter campaign alone will not de-stigmatize abortion.  We need to build more bridges and foster more strong ties.  This approach can give us a world where all the women who’ve had an abortion can speak freely about their experiences, and a world where the rest of us can see abortion less as a political issue to be debated and more about abortion as an experience lived by a woman we love.

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Last week, Steph Herold, the pro-choice activist behind IAmDr.Tiller launched a Twitter campaign to get women to come out about their abortions, using #ihadanabortion. Emily Douglas at The Nation invited us both to exchange our thoughts and ideas about the role of public abortion storytelling for changing the debate.

Read our exchange: “I Had An Abortion” in 140 Characters or Less: An Exchange with Steph Herold and Aspen Baker.

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*Guest Post by Pro-Voice High-Five Awardee for New Thinking: Eyal Rabinovitch*

“Do you find most public discourse on abortion painful?” This was the opening question on the invitation to the recent two-day “Open Hearts/Open Minds” conference that invited pro-life and pro-choice advocates and scholars to Princeton University to be in respectful and open conversation with one another. Several months earlier, I had offered my personal answer (“yes… very”) to that question in the form of a essay on an organization called Exhale and the pro-voice approach to abortion it’s been championing in recent years.

In an entrenched social conflict like abortion, I argued, the extreme polarization and bitterness of the conflict is more than painful – it’s downright destructive. Let me offer just a few examples here. For starters, people who have something to say that don’t fit into the points of view of those two sides are drowned out and neglected. Voices of complexity, moderation, or conciliation – including the voices of people dealing directly with abortion in their lives – are not tolerated, leaving out whatever contributions they might have to make toward better policies or greater understanding. Beyond that, the increasing polarization prevents both activists and policy makers from listening to one another’s actual arguments, understanding one another’s concerns, or working together collaboratively on points of mutual interest. At the same time, the public at large increasingly gets turned off by waves of demonizing rhetoric and oversimplifications. Sick of hearing the same angry conversation over and over again, people tune out and stop engaging in a social issue of great importance.

By contrast, a pro-voice approach argues for rooting our public conversation in the full complexity of people’s actual experiences with abortion rather than the caricatures and one-dimensional language that dominates the public conversation. A pro-voice orientation emphasizes creating space for people to share and listen to one another’s experiences with abortion not as a way to create ammunition for one ideological side or the other, but to rehumanize, revatilize, and de-polarize this crucial and profound social issue. As a student and practitioner of conflict transformation – a subfield of conflict studies focused on changing how we engage in our disagreements so that we can advocate for our values without destroying our own dignity or the dignity of those with whom we disagree – I embrace Exhale’s pro-voice vision and believe it can play a foundational role on a long-term path towards meaningful, restorative culture change on abortion.


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