Instead Of Fighting About Abortion, How About We Listen?

Photo: David Burke.
Last week, the group behind several secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal-tissue donation released a new one, this time including a technician for a laboratory that processes and provides fetal tissue to scientists. Pro-life people erupted in anger, vowing to defund the group once and for all, while pro-choice groups rallied to defend against the coordinated attack.

The long-standing battle has flared up again, and it’s not the first — or the last — time abortion will be the center of controversy. But what about the stories beyond the headlines — the millions of women and men who experience abortion personally, as a real-life event rather than an abstract debate? All too often, their voices are drowned out by the heated rhetoric that dominates the abortion conversation.

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that one in three U.S. women will have an abortion in her life, and roughly 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. Women aren’t having abortions to express their ideology — they have them because they need them. And while it might sound like heresy to some, some women — even those who consider themselves pro-choice — can have feelings of regret after their abortions, while some vehemently pro-life women have abortions, too.

Rather than pick one side or the other, I urge you to try something different: listening. Talk about your own reproductive experiences, from infertility to miscarriage to pregnancy to abortion — and listen to the people in your life talking about theirs. Here are some ideas on how.

1. Listen deeply. People who’ve had abortions are the experts on their own experiences. Show them trust and support, and invite them to share their stories. Ask open-ended questions. Validate their experiences.

2. Withhold your own opinion to create space. Recognize that everyone’s experiences are unique. Other people’s experiences may differ from your own, and you might have acted differently in their shoes. That’s okay.

3. Resist the desire to attack people on any side. Hostile political attacks can create more stigma, more shame, and more feelings of isolation for people who have abortions, when what they really need is empathy and compassion.

4. Speak from personal experience. At times like these, it’s a challenge to speak openly and with vulnerability about our own personal experiences with abortion, yet it’s the best way to stay focused on what really matters.

5. Embrace the discomfort of talking about abortion and fetal tissue. Women who have had abortions talk about fetal tissue — they talk about it with medical providers, with partners and family, and they talk about it on the Exhale after-abortion talk-line. Welcome open and honest discussion about seemingly taboo subjects.

There is no doubt that the political fight over abortion is real and important, yet fighting can’t be the only way we talk about it. We need conversations in which our personal experiences are treated with support and respect. Let’s stay focused on what women need and listen to their stories, even if it may feel uncomfortable at times.

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