By Nikko Merlander, Exhale Counselor
As a volunteer with Exhale since early 2008, I have heard time and time again that women and men using Exhale’s services were grateful for Exhale’s support. Yet, as a social worker who is interested in the evaluation and effectiveness of services, I wanted to know more about why Exhale’s services seemed to be so well-received. I saw an opportunity for mutual learning—to both dive into research that is important to me and to contribute to Exhale’s ongoing learning about what works for the women reaching out for post-abortion support.
I created a survey to explore women’s experiences receiving services from Exhale. This was a chance for the women taking the survey to be heard, anonymously, in a larger arena. What I most hoped for was that the feedback survey respondents gave could be used to give direction and guidance to professionals and organizations in the abortion field across the United States. What better way to understand how to improve post-abortion services than to listen to the needs and experiences of those who have had an abortion experience?
And so the women spoke! Survey respondents overwhelmingly stated that the most important aspects of their experiences with Exhale were those that connected them to other women, validated their experiences, and empowered them in finding well-being. Most simply put, respondents seemed to be saying that they come to Exhale to receive non-judgmental services that value their unique experiences while also reassuring them that they are not alone.
So how helpful has Exhale been? After contacting Exhale, most respondents stated that they felt more capable of dealing with their emotions and better able to care for themselves. A large majority of respondents indicated that after receiving Exhale’s services they felt more capable and able to support other women who had an abortion. If that is not an example of empowerment, I’m not sure what is.
I wanted to find out more about why Exhale’s services are empowering. A couple respondents stated that knowing that so many other women were struggling emotionally after their abortion in Exhale’s private online community was discouraging. They wanted services that could inspire hope for wellbeing rather than just a place to vent about their emotions. These comments speak to the need for more analysis of what constitutes “empowering” in post-abortion support. The survey results suggest that while listening to women’s stories in a non-judgmental manner is certainly important, there may be another component to post-abortion well-being that warrants increased attention.
One thing I found surprising was that few respondents ranked the provision of information and referrals as one of the most important aspects of receiving support from Exhale. This is not to say to say that resources and information aren’t important following an abortion, but rather the survey results may suggest that services that give information without providing a validating, empowering, and connecting space for women after an abortion may again not be fully meeting women’s needs.
On the talkline I speak to many women who feel that Exhale was the only place they could turn to for support around their abortion. In the survey, I really wanted to explore what women’s experiences were in receiving support not just from Exhale, but from other sources in their lives. This information could also provide professionals and organizations in the abortion field with a better understanding of what support was lacking in the community, and what the kind of support women looked for after an abortion experience really looked like.
The survey results confirmed what I have heard anecdotally on the talkline. Only just over a third of women responding felt satisfied with the support they received after their abortion from their partners and a quarter felt satisfied with the support received from their families. On the talkline, women often discuss that one of the biggest barriers to finding well-being after their abortion is the lack of support or even presence of judgment from partners, friends, and family members. That so few of the women respondents to the survey felt satisfied with the support from those in their lives raises much concern.
Additionally, well under half of the respondents felt satisfied with the support received from their abortion providers, suggesting the need for a more focused look into the support that providers offer. Results from the survey indicate that shortage of non-judgmental counseling in abortion clinics may be an area for improvement. In fact, over 60% of respondents stated they wished they had access to group support after their abortion, and just over one half of the respondents stated that they wished they had better access to in-person therapy after their abortion. Respondents to the survey seem to be saying that there is simply not enough support to their post-abortion well-being, both in the personal and professional arena.
With this survey and other recent attention on post-abortion support and care, women’s voices are beginning to be heard. The political, religious, and moral abortion debate may still be going strong, but what is clear is that women are having abortions, and the preliminary results of this survey suggest that the care they need after an abortion is most effective when it is connecting, validating, and empowering.
At an Exhale meeting in April, the counselors discussed what their part in the pro-voice moment looked like to them. This survey is my way to listen to and honor women’s voices surrounding their abortion experience. I think it demonstrates the power of embodying pro-voice in a way that works for each of us.