Listening to Women About Abortion
A new wave of abortion rights activism is spreading across the country–from zines to documentaries– that focuses on telling women’s stories rather than spouting stale feminist aphorisms
by Jennifer Baumgardner – May 26, 2005
TARA TODRAS-WHITEHILL PHOTO
Aspen Baker was born in a trailer on the beach in San Diego on the third anniversary of Roe v. Wade . Her parents were “surfers, but surfing Christians,” said Baker, now 29, who was home-schooled. Her mother was a former Catholic, and Baker was raised in a non-denominational Christian church. Baker was pro-choice, but she also knew that she could never have an abortion herself. Just after she graduated from Berkeley, she learned she was pregnant.
“Initially, I believed I was going to be a mother and have the baby,” she said. She was living with roommates, working as a bartender–“Imagine the eight-months-pregnant bartender,” she laughed–and she sensed that the relationship she was in was not going to last. She would be a single mom. Two co-workers at the bar told her that they had had abortions and felt it was the right choice. While Baker gradually realized that she didn’t want to have the baby, the decision to have an abortion was hard.
“When I finally went, it was in a hospital, and I had a nice doctor who explained the procedure to me, and plenty of counseling beforehand,” she said. “I was so grateful for the positive medical experience, despite my ambivalence.”
She assumed that at some point, though, someone at the clinic was going to tell her how to get follow-up counseling. But no one did. “I didn’t bring it up myself because if it’s not something that they do, then I figured that my feelings were abnormal and would go away,” she said.
They didn’t. In fact, her confusion and sadness only increased. “I thought I’d never have an abortion–and now I had,” Baker said. “I questioned my moral beliefs as a human rights activist. I didn’t believe in the death penalty. I felt bad about the boyfriend, who had gotten back with his ex.”
When she told her parents, who were divorced, her mother refused to talk about the abortion. “When I told my dad, he cried all night and told me that this was something I would have to reveal’ to my husband someday,” said Baker, who admitted to feeling very alone. “I cried all of the time, but I didn’t want to burden my friends.”
Her father called her the next day to say he wanted to support her any way he could, he just hadn’t known what to do in the moment. Baker began looking for resources. All she could find were thinly disguised anti-abortion messages. As a feminist, she said, “I didn’t see anything that reflected my experience.”
Seeking resolution, she interned at CARAL–the California arm of NARAL, one of the country’s oldest abortion rights organizations. But when she raised the issue of the lack of emotional resources for women, she confronted blank faces. It was as if admitting that she was struggling with her feelings meant that she wasn’t really pro-choice, she said.
Eventually, Baker discovered several like-minded women and they founded Exhale, a non-judgmental post-abortion talk-line for the Bay Area, in 2000. The group tried to eliminate anything in their materials that might stop a woman from calling, including words like “feminist” or even “pro-choice,” even though Exhale is both.
“We didn’t know if we’d ever get a call,” recalled Baker. “But we got our first call the second night. It was from a father who wanted to know how to support his daughter.” Exhale now gets about 60 calls a month–around 10 percent are from men, often wanting to know what they can do to help a daughter or partner going through an abortion. In June, Exhale’s talk-line is going national….
I had two good friends and a relative who went through the awful choice of having an abortion. It’s only through excellent luck that I never had to have one myself – I seem to know my body’s timing well enough that I never got pregnant when I didn’t want to be.
My feeling is that this is the hardest decision a woman can have to make, and I feel deeply for those I know who had to make it. How anyone could feel they have any right to tell them they have no right to make that decision, I don’t know. I don’t understand those who want to control the lives of others. Well, actually I do, but then, I’ve been crazy enough to think I had any place telling other people what to do, once. I’m no longer crazy, though. And I certainly know enough these days to understand that everyone’s path is unique, personal and their own. We don’t live in other’s lives, we don’t know how they feel, and we can’t make their choices for them. Even if they are our friends, our relatives, or, yes, our children.
My niece just made a brave choice to have a baby by herself, and I fully support her. But I would have supported her if she decided not to have her baby as well. I’m proud of her, and always will be – she’s a great woman, and a brave one. As are those who must choose the other way. My heart goes out to any woman who had to choose whether or not to bring a new life into this world. They are all brave, courageous people. Who deserve the ultimate respect that we can give someone else – the freedom to choose for themselves the path their life must follow.