If you read the news, it can sound like there are exactly two kinds of people: pro-life and pro-choice. People who have no qualms whatsoever about a woman getting an abortion for any reason she chooses, and people who oppose that right 100% percent of the time. Aspen Baker thinks that's a fallacy — and a harmful one at that. Baker is an abortion activist and the author of Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When The World Wants A Fight. Released this past Monday, Baker's book aims to offer a third road within the the either-or dynamic she finds so problematic. In her introduction, Baker writes: Abortion is a part of all our lives in one way or another. When one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, there are few people the experience doesn't touch, whether it is a distant aunt who never really emotionally recovered from her abortion, a brother who never talks about his high school girlfriend's abortion, or your own mother, whose illegal experience made her the free activist for abortion rights that she is today.
When one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, there are few people the experience doesn't touch.
Baker's beliefs stem from her own life experiences. In a TED talk in Monterey, CA last week, she shared how she'd been raised in a strictly religious and very pro-life household. “As a kid, abortion made me so sad, I knew I could never have one — until I did." After college, Baker got pregnant, and after wrestling with the decision — and worrying she'd regret it — decided to end it. In the midst of that, a friend of Baker's relayed her own abortion experience, and Baker realized how powerful the simple act of sharing a story was — and how much the stigma around abortion kept people silent. The power of storytelling — and how it lets us transcend political squabbles — became the linchpin of Baker's movement. She founded Exhale, a non-profit organization that started as a support hotline where women could call in and share their abortion stories. The notion of "pro-voice" grew out of the person-to-person experiences of Baker and her colleagues (many of whom have had abortions themselves) as they spoke with women struggling to come to terms with their personal decisions — ones contested hotly in the public sphere. "Politics is important," Baker told us, "but we also have personal experiences. A lot of opportunity to create more personal, nuanced conversations with one another exists. That's what pushes politics anyway. We need to create a supportive, respectful culture that will then push politics to be more supportive and respectful."
As a kid, abortion made me so sad I knew I could never have one — until I did
Exhale prides itself on rooting in a political gray area. According to Baker's book, in 15 years, the organization has "never taken a political stance for or against [abortion's] legality." The ambiguity is crucial to Exhale's efficacy; the goal is to remove abortion from the political arena that casts it off as an issue that can, like gun rights or taxation, be reduced to red and blue. "We live in a society where being able to identify your emotions, to cope with your emotions and build networks of support, is a good thing. Veterans from war are getting signs that say 'A strong man is a man who asks for help.' There is a whole emotional renaissance taking place that has not existed for women who have had abortions," Baker says. "We have more places than ever to talk. It doesn't mean that people feel heard." At the end of our conversation with Baker, she offered some advice on how to take her philosophy and use it in the real world — whether you're talking about abortion or sharing stories about anything else that might be stigmatized. First, she said, reflect a woman's language back at her, without getting too caught up in right or wrong. If she says fetus, say fetus; if she says unborn child, say unborn child. It's a subtle but powerful way of making people heard. One volunteer at Exhale, Baker tells us, was a non-religious person who practiced standing in front of the mirror and saying "God" over and over again. It didn't turn her into a Christian, but it did make her more comfortable — and more effective at — talking with people from all backgrounds. Next, ask open-ended question, and try not to project your own experiences. When abortion has affected someone's life, you don't really know how she feels until you ask. Some people might feel regret, others relief — and neither answer is right or wrong. The important thing is just to listen.