In my masters program last week, we looked at a school of action-research called appreciative inquiry—which, in a nutshell, is about recognizing and understanding the positive, instead of relentlessly focusing on the negative. In our hypercritical cultures, we tend to take exclusively problem-based approaches to change, focusing on what's wrong and how we can change it instead of what's right and how we can expand it. Celebrating the good is what appreciative inquiry is all about. So, despite the Supreme Court's infuriatingly paternalistic Gonzales vs. Carhart decision, the anti-abortion nonsense continually unfolding at the state level, and the fact that the federal government continues to glibly fund ethically questionable crisis pregnancy centers, I want to take a moment to appreciate all of the folks out there who continue to place real women's lives, rights, needs, and capacities at the center of their work.
First, I want to recognize Backline, a national pro-choice talkline that "offers a confidential space for women and their loved ones to talk openly about pregnancy, parenting, abortion and adoption" (yup, all four). After operating out of volunteers' homes for several years, Backline has just moved into its first office, in Portland, Oregon. A careful look through the organization's website reveals no hidden agenda, unless you believe that anyone who doesn't loudly trumpet the moral evils of abortion to pregnant women is a baby killer. Unlike ideologically driven "service" centers like Dr. Eric Keroack's infamous A Woman's Concern (check out their totally non-judgmental online "options" list)—which use technology, scare tactics, and coercive counselling to steer pregnant women away from seeking abortions—Backline is driven by no moral or political objective beyond a non-negotiable commitment to supporting each individual woman's pregnancy decision. In other words, as far as Backline is concerned, there's no "right" answer to being pregnant.
Backline joins the ranks of a range of pro-choice groups that are dedicated to providing pregnant women, and women who have had abortions, with a non-judgmental space to process their feelings amidst a culture that is all too ready to deny women's moral agency and condemn women's decisions—a culture that glorifies pregnancy and childbirth while providing little actual support to pregnant and parenting women. Organizations like the pro-choice after-abortion talkline Exhale, and websites like the teen-focused Mom, Dad, I'm Pregnant, are examples of this approach. Other organizations like the Abortion Conversation Project and National Advocates for Pregnant Women are focused on expanding the conversation about abortion to include deep reflections on how our society treats pregnant women, and to explore the complexity of what pregnancy means in women's lives. I appreciate them all.
For me, however, appreciation starts at home. So amidst my support for all of these fantastic groups, I also want to give an appreciative shout-out to my mom, who worked for many years as a counselor, and later the Director of Counseling, at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, and who, by her own example, taught me what it means to be truly pro-choice. My mother has strong political views, but first and foremost, she is an advocate, a listener, and a supporter of people. When she worked as a counselor at Planned Parenthood, she was committed to sitting down with each one of her clients for as long as it took for that woman to arrive at a decision she felt was her own. Sometimes that meant helping a woman map the resources and support structures in her own life, in order to help her break down a situation that felt overwhelming. Sometimes that meant affirming a decision that a woman had already made, and felt perfectly comfortable with. Sometimes that meant helping a woman visualize how having a child, or having an abortion, or carrying a pregnancy to term and giving her child up for adoption, might affect her life in one year, or five years, or ten years. Sometimes that meant making absolutely sure that a woman had made her own decision, and wasn't just bowing to the demands of a parent, a boyfriend, or a husband. And sometimes that meant giving a woman the space to change her mind, even if she had already made an appointment to have an abortion. The point was not to get women to agree with whatever decision my mother felt was best for them; the point was to support each woman to decide what was best for herself.
In the end, that's what good pregnancy options counseling is all about: in addition to providing women with factual information about their options, it reminds them that in spite of the pressures they might be facing, these are their pregnancies, their bodies, and their decisions. At a time when the political discourse on abortion drifts further from the reality of women's lives with each passing moment, when the language of "informed consent" is used to shore up support for forced Ultrasounds, and when deception-based crisis pregnancy centers claim to be dispensing compassionate, client-centered support, that's something truly worth appreciating.