The first time I told a friend about my abortion, I was scared. Abortion was the topic of the day in ethics class, and I ditched. My friend asked why, and I told her: I had an abortion. She froze. She didn’t know what to say. We were both at a complete loss for words to talk about one of the most widely discussed social issues of our time. This month marks the 41st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision affirming the right to an abortion. With so many states restricting access to abortion, and the Supreme Court discussing the constitutionality of buffer zones around abortion clinics, sometimes it feels like everyone is talking about abortion as a political issue, but no one is talking about it as a personal one.
The stats say that 1 in 3 women will have an abortion before the age of 45, but due to silence and stigma, they often don’t feel safe to talk about their abortion publicly. Research has shown that the presence of after-abortion emotional support can help those who need a listening ear, but these resources are few and far between. Many after-abortion support services are offered by anti-abortion advocates who only preach shame and repentance. In search of resources, I finally found a community of support that helped me break through six years of invisible walls and brought me closer than ever to my parents. I learned that many women in my family also had abortions and that the stats were true – I wasn’t alone. Now, I speak about my abortion publicly, with people who have had them and those who haven’t. In these conversations, the same question always arises – what is the right thing to say to someone after they’ve had an abortion?
We’re all familiar with the slurs that are hurled at patients as they walk in the clinic. We know the fiery vitriol that’s thrown at those who speak up. Words hurt. They cut deep to our core. For those whose abortion was a deeply personal and difficult decision, these words of hate make it that much harder to move forward and heal. Sometimes a hug or a listening ear can make a world of difference. While each abortion situation is different, a simple mnemonic device I adapted from the Sea Change Program, “Stop, Drop, and Listen,” can aid in supporting someone through any vulnerable conversation.
An immediate reaction when someone is telling a deeply personal story is to start talking – either to say that everything is going to be okay or to show disapproval and hear no more of it. But when this happens, the opportunity for conversation is shut down. You are closing off the space for them to speak out. If someone is coming to you with a deeply personal story, it’s because they trust you and need your support. Talking before they’re finished ends the conversation and can impact how or if they’ll ever open up to someone again. A young woman once said that her father called her a whore as soon as she told him about her abortion. Now, she feels that she will never be able to open up to him, or anyone, again. Imagine how isolating that feels. Remember, what you say will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Drop Your Judgments
Everyone has an opinion on abortion. Put it aside for a minute. When someone decides to take a risk and tell you about their abortion, they need support, not political talking points. Abortion can be a tough and emotional experience. Many pregnancies are wanted, but due to various circumstances beyond our control, we just can’t continue them. Give the space to let them tell you their experience. Let them be heard. What you hear might challenge some stereotypes you’ve heard about abortion. You may learn something. And if you are against abortion, ask yourself, “Is this person really undeserving of love and compassion at what might be one of the hardest times in their life?”
Listen and Ask
Listen closely. Hear what they are saying. Connect to them with your whole self, and give them your undivided attention. Ask them what they need. Try asking open-ended questions, and don’t assume what they need. Let them tell you what would help. A simple “what can I do to support you?” or “how are you feeling about this?” can go a long way. It lets them know you care about what they need for support. Sometimes they want to have good cry, or need help finding resources, like counseling. Sometimes it’s to know if you’ve had one too, or other times they just want to be heard. In a world that devalues our voices, it’s nice to know that our loved ones still hear us.
And most importantly, give them a hug. If you don’t know what to say, a hug is almost always the most comforting and empowering response. They’ll never forget that you did it.
We all face challenges in our lives. We all have that secret that we’re afraid our family and friends will judge us for, and we crave connection and acceptance. You’ll never know how many of the one in three women who’ve had abortions are in your family or circle of friends unless you open the space for conversation and show that you can Stop, Drop, and Listen. You’ll be surprised at what you hear. One story isn’t every story. And we all deserve to be heard in our own words. Take a moment to truly listen.
Resources to Share
Need a supportive confidential ear? Call the talkline volunteers at Backline before, during, or after you decide on parenting, abortion, or adoption. Whether it was 2 days ago or 20 years ago, they’re there to listen. (888) 493-0092
Think you’re alone? Want to share your story? Connect with others who have had abortions through Advocates for Youth’s "1 in 3" Campaign’s collection of stories and videos.