I recently had the unique opportunity to spend time with Elizabeth, who is a volunteer with Exhale. Exhale is known as one of the only post-abortion support groups in existence that is not affiliated with the pro-life movement. Its website includes links to the National Abortion Federation and Planned Parenthood, but no abortion alternatives/pregnancy care centers.
Nevertheless, Exhale shies away from the “pro-choice” label. They prefer the term “pro-voice,” which it coined to express a commitment to listening to the voices of women who have had abortions. Exhale promotes pro-voice communication as a non-violent practice that can be applied to any stigmatized human experience. The Pro-Voice Counseling Guide states: “We have found that speaking from personal experience allows people to have nuanced conversations about abortion, and invites a diversity of wisdom and values to be expressed.”
Exhale operates as a call center, but the agents work from home and calls are dispatched to them directly. All agents work on a volunteer basis, and participate in an extensive training program designed to teach agents the skills relevant to their role. Elizabeth is a call center agent.
When discussing this with Elizabeth, I was surprised to learn several things about her experience as a volunteer.
The opinions of the agents are diverse. While there are not any volunteers that she would describe as pro-life, she said that differences of opinion on when abortion is justifiable were not discouraged. She explained that some of the questions asked throughout the training pertained to their personal feelings on abortion. One she example provided was the question “Would you feel differently about a woman who aborts at age 32 versus age 16?” She felt that all views expressed were respected.
The agents are not therapists. They are there to listen without judgement, to acknowledge the callers feelings, and to build upon their strengths. Callers who are deciding whether or not to actually have an abortion are referred to other (pro-choice) organizations.
Women and men experience emotional pain after an abortion. This often seems like one of the hardest things for the pro-choice camp to admit, yet Elizabeth confirms that this is undeniable. She shared with me that her volunteering years with Exhale have made her to understand how devastating and troubling abortion can be. Many of the callers are family members or boyfriends of women suffering from an abortion decision. Many times, these men and women feel helpless to offer any support to those they care about and just need to talk to someone. It is important for agents to understand the tragedy of abortion, even if only for how it affects those already born.
Most of the callers are not religious. When I asked Elizabeth how she would handle a call from someone that is not religious, she said that religion rarely comes up at all. She shared that sometimes the caller will say something like “I feel like everyone is judging me,” and Elizabeth will ask “who is judging you, is it your family, God, friends?” and that the callers almost always say “Oh, not God.” Any religious concerns are referred out to another hotline. This really surprised me because of course abortion advocates generally frame negative feelings about an abortion as being religious in nature, claiming that post-abortion trauma is just a product of religious brainwashing. But secular women too experience profound emotional distress because of abortion.
The most traumatized callers took RU 486. As a pro-lifer, I’ve always viewed surgical abortion, in which the embryo or fetus is dismembered, as the most traumatic abortion method for the fetus. I always assumed that surgical abortions were more traumatic for the woman involved too. Not so. According to Elizabeth, during a surgical abortion, most women will not see the fetal remains. Rather it is the at home procedure when women witness the reality of the abortion, and when women see the fetal remains, that is when they feel the most isolated, scared, and unsure of their choice.
You may be asking yourself: why would we care about Exhale? Why should we, pro-lifers, who view abortion as a human rights violation, care about an organization that fails to explicitly denounce the practice, a group that will not even evaluate abortion on moral or legal grounds? I have come up with a couple of things I hope you will consider.
Many women have not been exposed to the moral implications of abortion. How did you hear about abortion growing up? For many, it was through a friend’s experience, or in high school debate class. In some places the only known resource for a crisis pregnancy situation is Planned Parenthood, basically everyone is pro-choice, and the only moral question presented is “are you ready to have a child”? (Exhale began in the extremely pro-choice community of Oakland, CA.)
Once someone with that background has an abortion and trauma unexpectedly begins to surface, where can she go for support? Speaking one-on-one with someone who has no broader political motivation may be the only way many of those struggling emotionally can be reached at all.
Pro-voice listening techniques are relevant to the pro-life cause. What would happen if we all started listening to each other? Would we have, as Exhale’s counseling guide states, more nuanced conversations about abortion? Would we have a greater chance of being heard if we are willing to listen?
Josh Brahn, founder of the pro-life Equal Rights Institute, stated in his November newsletter that “When you go out of your way to understand people … you help create an environment where you can have meaningful conversations with others, which does not happen if you just follow the temptation to dismiss their view.” If we want to be persuasive and change hearts and minds, I suspect it will be helpful to not only be pro-life, but to also be pro-voice.