Synopsis: Its seems that when the topic of abortion comes up in the media, there are two distinct sides voicing their opinions with no middle ground or real conversation on the topic. The debate over this issue and other touchy topics these days usually disintegrates into an “Us vs. Them” shouting match, leaving many on both sides and in the middle angry and dissatisfied. Our guest offers a new way to discuss abortion – without taking sides, without name-calling or raised voices — that brings the issue to a more personal and compassionate level.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Aspen Baker, co-founder and executive director of Exhale, author of the book, “Pro-Voice: How to keep listening when the world wants a fight.”
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Talking About Abortion
Marty Peterson: There is probably no more contentious topic on the American scene than abortion. The debate began when the case of Roe v. Wade was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, and it continues in state houses, on talk shows and in churches around the country. If you listen to the TV and radio news shows, you’d think that there were just two sides to this issue – pro-life and pro-choice – and that they’ll never come to any agreement. That can leave a lot of people out in the cold – namely those women, their partners and families who have abortion experiences themselves and who have no non-partisan, non-judgmental place to talk about it. Aspen Baker was one of those young women. She’s the co-founder and Executive Director of Exhale, and author of the book, Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight. She said she started Exhale when she found herself pregnant at the age of 24.
Aspen Baker: I had an abortion right after I graduated from college, and I had grown up in a Christian community and was surrounded by people who were pro-life. When I was a kid, the idea of abortion made me so sad that I knew if I ever got pregnant, I would never, ever have one. And then I did. And I was surprised when I found that there wasn’t a lot of places for me to talk about that experience. So, I started Exhale fifteen years ago as a place for women and men to call to get non-judgmental, emotional support.
Peterson When they started Exhale, Baker says that there were only two sides to the issue, and she didn’t think the labels of pro-choice and pro-life were useful for an organization that welcomed people from both sides to call in and talk about their experiences.
Baker: At first, we were kind of label-less, we were like, “We’re nothing!” but that’s not true, because we were actually for something that was really important. And that was for non-judgment, for healing, and for the well-being of women. That’s how we came to invent Pro-Voice, and that’s what my book is all about – how we’ve been using Pro-Voice to both support people who have abortions, how to get people talking to one another about difficult topics that can be very personal, or very big and politicized like abortion, and how that might be useful on other controversial topics as well.
Peterson: She says that’s what unique about Pro-Voice: they care about the opinions and stories of people on all sides of the issue. It’s a pretty courageous stand, what with all of the venom that flies back and forth on the topic. Their philosophy is to embrace the voices of all people no matter their gender, race, religion or political views. They’re not out to change anyone’s political stand on the issue. Instead, they want to foster understanding of individuals’ experiences with abortion. Baker says that Pro-Voice does this with three core tools: listening, storytelling and embracing grey areas.
Baker: This is about us talking to each other as fellow women or as fellow people or as neighbors, and sometimes our neighbors have different beliefs than we do. So, having these intimate conversations is really critical, and that’s why the relationship of listening and sharing stories is so important. If we’re really listening, actively, then we’ll be hearing things that make us change our own perceptions. So, right now, politically, we’re sort of listening in a “gotcha” culture. We’re sort of listening to be like “Oh, you screwed up and you said that wrong. I’m going to use that point to argue this back!” We’re very good at arguing and we’re very good at fighting. We can do that all day long. But if we really want to change the way that we talk about abortion then, partly, we’re going to have to change our own perceptions or be willing and open to think about things in a new way.
Peterson: She says that storytelling is an important part of the Pro-Voice toolbox because abortion has touched all of our lives in one way or another.
Baker: Even if we’ve not had an abortion in our own bodies, when I talk to people around the country and I say “Hey, here’s the work that I do,” immediately something personal comes to mind in somebody’s life. “Oh, my mother was an abortion provider, and I remember dropping her off at work and seeing protesters.” Or, “Oh, I went with my friend to get her abortion, and this is what I remember about her life.” This is intimate and personal to all of us, and that’s an incredible place for us to start – having conversations with one other.
Peterson: Embracing gray areas is the third tool, and its purpose is to help us break out of our comfort zones and put aside partisan labeling.
Baker: Instead of trying to, sort of, put what I hear into a box and say, “Oh, I know what you’re going to say, or I use this word so I’m going to put this label onto you,” if we live in the gray areas, the places that make us uncomfortable, the parts that we’re not used to hearing, the part that aren’t typically in public debate, that’s where we have the real opportunity to hear something new and have the chance to find some opportunity to innovate – which is what Exhale really did – but nobody was listening to women who had abortions when we got started. So, we said this needs to happen, and we have been doing that now for fifteen years. We’ve been able to hear all kinds of things about the way people talk about their own abortions that is not what you hear if you’re just paying attention to what political activists and politicians are saying.
Peterson: Using those three tools, people can fulfill the goals of Pro-Voice to respect human dignity, and maintain human connections despite conflicting ideas about an issue. Baker says that her non-profit organization, Exhale, helps anyone who is touched by abortion by providing a talk line where they can discuss their experiences with an understanding counselor. She says that even men call to talk about their feelings on the issue and to ask advice about dealing with it in their own lives.
Baker: The first call that ever came to the Exhale talk line was from a man who had recently learned about his teenage daughter’s abortion. He didn’t know how to talk to her about it, and he wanted to be able to talk to her about it. So, ever since then, we have men serve as counselors on our talk line, men involved in our organization and men that call our line. Often men are calling because they want to know what the right thing is to say or they’re trying to figure out what’s normal – because we mostly talk about abortion in political ways – it can be difficult to know what a “normal abortion” experience is like when you’re actually going through one. So, sometimes men are wondering, “Well she’s crying all the time. I thought this was supposed to be easy. What’s going on?” or vice versa, like “I’m feeling sad and upset, but she’s feels fine. What’s going on here?” Men can have their own experience of abortion. It might be similar to the women’s and it might be different. Both can be true, and both can be heard and understood, and they don’t need to be in competition with each other.
Peterson: The Exhale website is exhaleprovoice.org, and their talk line number is 1-866-4-EXHALE. Baker says that any polarizing topic can use the Pro-Voice model to bring people together to share experiences and find solutions to dealing with issues in a peaceful, non-politicized way.
Baker: We see Pro-Voice in so many areas. We hear it with organizations working to end poverty, and how they believe and know that poor people are the best people to figure out how to solve poverty. We definitely hear the way that Pro-Voice is used around issues of sexuality and letting people use their own labels, and treating different experiences with support and respect. Not having to box people up in gendered boxes, and that they can create their own boxes. So we see Pro-Voice far beyond the issue of abortion.
Peterson: Baker hopes that after reading about Pro-Voice and Exhale, people will understand that there’s another way to discuss big, touchy political issues other than the “You vs. Us” debate we so often hear in the media.
Baker: I hope people realize that these big, politicized conversations like abortion are actually something that we can talk about, and that there’s ways to talk about them that feel supportive and respectful, even with people we might disagree with. And that Pro-Voice is a contagious practice. The more people who practice it, the more it spreads. We all have the power to shift and change the conversation as it exists right now.
Peterson: You can find out more about Pro-Voice, the book and the method on Baker’s website at AspenBaker.com. Once again, the Exhale website is exhaleprovoice.org, and their talk line is 1-866-4-EXHALE. For information about all of our guests, their organizations and publications, log on to our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can also find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.