Women Who Have Had Abortions Take the Lead

Years ago, there was a rural clinic in Northern California where women who got abortions one week would bring lasagna to women getting their abortions the next. When I heard about this, I couldn’t help but imagine myself with them. Would I be hungry enough to eat after my abortion, or would cheesy lasagna make me nauseous? Would I want to talk with other women or hang out quietly, feeling cared for?

This room of women swapping stories and plates of food is an image I equate with the ultimate expression of support, connection, and wellbeing after an abortion.

What if we could turn America into a community known for lovingly providing potlucks and supporting friends and family after an abortion?

We may not be as far away from this vision as you think.

Last month, when New York Magazine published “My Abortion,” featuring 26 different women sharing 26 different stories, women and men came together in the comments section and social media, offering support and compassion. We were all able to witness community being formed across a range of diverse abortion experiences.

This past summer when the Texas legislature was fighting over a new abortion law, we heard about women who stood together outside the dome, swapping their own abortion stories along with Kleenex, regardless of which side of the political aisle they were on. One observer noted privately: “what surprised me was the strength of women sharing stories with one another. The political was powerful, but even more powerful were the women who connected and felt heard and supported.” It was a rare moment of connectivity that didn’t get nearly as much coverage as the divisiveness inside the Capitol.

Women who have had abortions, along with our allies, are taking the lead, showing that even in the midst of increasing hostility, polarization, and politicization, it’s possible to nurture human connection and empathy. As a community of people, we can go far beyond what has hurt or angered us throughout the political conflict and take essential steps to build the social support and cultural respect that is needed in all of our lives.

In a political age marked by the harsh consequences of partisanship and brinkmanship, never has this approach been more important to America.

For more than a decade, the organization I co-founded and lead, Exhale, has been building these connections. While we’ve certainly had our share of potlucks, we have had the most success generating love and respect post-abortion through listening and storytelling, two compassionate acts that form the foundation of our pro-voice approach.

Most recently, we supported five storytellers as they travel the nation with a mission to transform the abortion conflict into peace and understanding. Their personal abortion stories open conversations and invite audiences to imagine themselves in their shoes. It’s hard, at first, for most people to believe that they can do this with no political goal in mind. But, it’s true.

Not seeking to persuade their audience, nor gain acceptance for what they went through, the storytellers practice empathy. Through their openness and by their listening, they show their audience respect. It becomes mutual. There is a connection.

“I was surprised by the speakers’ compassion, empathy, and sensitivity to those who oppose them,” shared one audience member. “It felt honest on a deep level. Genuine story telling for no purpose other than sharing and showing awareness,” shared another.

Mayah Frank, one of two Pro-Voice Fellows featured in “My Abortion,” writes how pro-voice has helped her to leave shame behind so that even when she feels attacked she can respond with compassion: “I can speak from my experience, with vulnerability, to foster a conversation, rather than buy-in to an unending argument. I respond with love and empathy.” 

Mayah and her cohort share stories that challenge black and white thinking. Another Pro-Voice Fellow, Ronak Dave´ Okoye writes: “Pro-voice … releases us from the consuming, unending dialogue about right and wrong and allows us to see the beauty, nuance, and complexity that unfolds in human experience. By listening deeply, with compassion and empathy, we allow ourselves to see truth through dialogue."

Pro-voice storytellers are doing what it takes to heal that which ails us. Their leadership is a living demonstration of how to cure our separateness; it’s an ordination to rebuild our nation’s dignity. It’s a stand for hope and possibility.

Can you imagine if those women in that rural Northern California clinic only gave lasagna to the women they thought would vote just like them? 

The personal is, undoubtedly, quite political. And, women who have abortions, and our families are as pro-life and as pro-choice as everyone else in America – we’re as diverse in our political views as we are from each other – and as “My Abortion” depicted so clearly, our experiences with abortion vary widely.  But when we turn against one another in the name of politics, we miss the opportunity to take the lead and show the nation that while abortion gets to be controversial in a democracy we won’t let it tear us apart. 

Women who have had abortions—with the support of our friends, family, and allies—can use our leadership to help each other, and our nation, heal from the pain of this debate. We can refuse to let our stories fortify a conflict we don’t want, and we should do what’s necessary to make the political landscape respond not just to our personal stories – but to the leadership we offer America with our empathy, shared connections and mutual respect.

What will you bring to the potluck?