Whether pro-life or pro-choice, let’s be pro-voice

There should be nothing objectionable in telling honest stories about abortion

February 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

In 2013, I hit the road with four other women, stopping at colleges, churches and theaters across the United States to share my abortion story. We had no political agenda on this tour. We sought only to connect with the people we met.

“To what end?” asked a 50-year veteran of abortion rights activism, who was visibly bothered by our presentation.

A security guard had been hired to protect us against anti-abortion violence, but she wound up coming to our defense in a different way when she suggested that the activist “journal about her feelings” toward us.

To what end? Love. Growth. Cultural healing. Our most receptive audience was a group of young Jesuits, many of them clinic protesters. Anti-abortion protesters often showed more empathy for us — five women talking about our abortions without trying to change their minds — than abortion-rights activists.

These days, it no longer surprises me when an abortion-rights activist has trouble considering abortion outside a divisive political context. So it didn’t shock me when Al Jazeera America columnist Raina Lipsitz, a journalist and a former clinic escort, took issue with three writers — Monica Heisey, Molly Crabapple and me — for critiquing the pro-choice movement for not recognizing nuanced narratives about abortion, including recovery or grief.

Lipsitz argued that “there’s simply no evidence to support” the claim that abortion-rights advocates are “guilty of silencing women.” But she supplied the evidence herself: She trivialized our lived experiences with abortion. Some abortion-rights activists have inadvertently spread these subtle forms of stigma. This happens when we promote certain positive stories, giving them an aura of legitimacy, while omitting stories that might not serve our cause. When political narratives dominate, we adopt a battlefield mentality. But I believe it’s possible to move beyond the political realm. We must be open to a multiplicity of stories and deeper conversations about abortion.

If having abortions were a political decision, people who identify as anti-abortion would not have them. But they do. I know, because I used to be one of them. I was a single, white, 19-year-old Kentuckian who had just been fired from my minimum-wage job when I got pregnant and decided to have an abortion. I have had 11 years to reflect on my decision and to share my story with a wider audience. In 2011, when The New York Times published an essay about my abortion, readers hashtagged my story both #prochoice and #prolife — an example of why abortion should be both legal and illegal? It seemed to me that people on opposite sides of the debate could connect at the level of storytelling. 

The pro-choice movement is strong enough to withstand frank dialogue and is more complex than a crusade to secure abortion rights.

On tour, we created a space where people could share their stories. We traveled to Texas, where regulations were shutting down clinics across the state. We sat in a circle with a pastor, a counselor and a midwife. The midwife and her husband of 28 years had had an abortion long ago.

“We’ve never talked about how I feel about it,” she told us, kind of incredulously. “It affected me a lot more than I wanted to give it credit for.” In Austin — ground zero of the abortion war — we were hearing from a wife who wanted to share her feelings with her husband.

There’s a name for this apolitical movement we were spreading on the road. It’s called pro-voice, a philosophy and a practice coined by Aspen Baker, author of “Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight,” and executive director of Exhale, the organization that sponsored the tour.

In the four years since I published the op-ed Lipsitz quoted, historically pro-choice organizations have embraced more inclusive language. In 2013, Planned Parenthood dropped its “pro-choice” tag since “these labels limit the conversation.” In 2014, a leader at NARAL Pro-Choice America told me its two most successful events of the year were the least political. The personal and the political are porous; the pro-voice philosophy has seeped into the political realm.

I believe the pro-choice movement is strong enough to withstand frank dialogue and is more complex than a crusade to secure abortion rights. We still have a long way to go when a former clinic escort like Lipsitz compares regretting abortion to regretting divorce and minimizes the experiences that real women report facing.

When people speak up about their lives before, during and after abortion, I’m going to ask myself, “What would it look like to stand with them?” And then I’m going to affirm them without pointing out that the political battle is more important than they are. As a woman who has had an abortion, I will keep adding my voice to the chorus with Ronak Davé Okoye, Kate Hindman, Mayah Frank and Natalia Koss-Vallejo — my tour mates — as well as Monica Heisey, Molly Crabapple, Aspen Baker, Angie Aker, Iman Ahmed, Toni Braxton, Chelsea Handler, Melissa Harris-Perry, Leslie Jamison, Carolyn Jones, Anne Lamott, Emily Letts, Gila Lyons, Melissa Madera, Nicki Minaj, Liza Monroy, Sharon Osbourne, Mira Ptacin, Susan Shapiro, Sherri Shepherd, Renee Bracey Sherman, Cheryl Strayed and Lizz Winstead. I will show people how to talk about abortion in personal and loving ways.

It’s relatively easy. When somebody tells me she had an abortion, I ask an open-ended question, such as “How are you doing?” I don’t contort my eyebrows in sympathy, because she might be doing very well. I don’t say, “I support your right to choose,” which prompts them to tell me the light version. I just get quiet. I let gaps of silence settle in the space between us so they can say more than they would if I rushed in with a reply.

This does nothing to diminish the importance of the political conversation; rather it creates a more inclusive space to have it. In this pro-voice space, we don’t have to pick a side. On tour, a Muslim student at a faith-based college said, “I am forever changed. I will now think of abortion as a human experience.” A student at a liberal arts college said, “I came in wearing my armor, but it turns out I didn’t need it.” I bet some of us put our armor back on when we left the room, but for one brief moment, in that new space, we were free. 

Kassi Underwood has written and spoken about abortion for The New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York magazine, Exhale Pro-Voice, HuffPost Live and Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC, among other venues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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