A Different Kind of Sidewalk Counseling: What Women Ask Me About Abortion


I’m a sidewalk counselor, but not the kind that you’re thinking of. I don’t stand outside abortion clinics with signs and I don’t approach women to spew ideological propaganda. But like the anti-choicers who block clinic entrances, I often find myself as the one person a woman talks to right before she enters an abortion clinic. As someone who speaks publicly and often about my own abortion, I’m regularly approached by women who are making that same decision. What surprises me about these encounters is that these women are usually not seeking advice or guidance about the morality or legality of the procedure. They don’t bring up the reproductive rights issue of the day. The questions they ask me, the topics we discuss, are shockingly simple and mundane yet they demonstrate the pervasive silence surrounding the procedure and the importance of just talking about it.

After sharing my personal experience with abortion on the MTV documentary “No Easy Decision” I began receiving emails, facebook messages and texts from women I barely knew. These discussions always start the same way, “Can I ask you a question?” 

What follows is rarely a discussion about politics, legislation and even the pro-choice versus pro-life debate. The questions I am asked are, “I have dance class three days after my abortion. Do you think I’ll be okay?”

And, “There are two different options for painkillers. Which one should I pick?”

 They say, “I want to tell my mom. How do I do that?”

And wonder, “Do I need to get a babysitter for the kids that night?”

They ask me what to expect from the clinic staff: “Will they be nice?”

 “What questions are they going to ask me?”

“Is it weird being in the waiting room?”

I answer their questions as honestly as I can and make referrals and references when necessary but for the most part I just listen. And it seems to me that that’s all they really want, to voice the concerns that most people would consider to be inconsequential. They want to be heard, to be understood, to relate. They want to calm their nerves. They want me to remind them that I did it and that I’m fine. It may sound strange but it’s totally normal.

I know because I did the same thing with my best friend. She was the first person I called after I found out I was pregnant, because I knew she had had an abortion. We didn’t talk about my actual decision at all. Instead I asked her if it would be weird if I brought my boyfriend, what I should do after the procedure and how long it would take for me to feel normal again. I also asked if the clinic would be cold, if I should bring a sweatshirt and if there were any protesters when she went.

As someone who is on both the personal and the political sides of the debate I’m always shocked by how different those two sides can be. And while both are equally important, I can’t help but notice that one side gets significantly more attention than the other. Maybe it’s because the politics are louder. Or maybe it’s because debates over laws are just that much more important than debates of whether women should have to recover from the procedure in the same room. I can’t be sure but I often get the sense that women who have abortions are just as alienated from the pro-choice movement as they are from the mainstream.

If we want the pro-choice position to support real women’s lived experiences with abortion we need to be willing and able to discuss the things that really matter to them. Not all women who have had abortions will have opinions on the latest legislation, and not all are directly affected by it, but we all know what it’s like to sit in a room with dozens of other women and stare at our feet.

What the pro-choice movement needs is more sidewalk counseling. Okay, not really sidewalk counseling and preferably not on sidewalks. But we need to start doing for real what sidewalk counselors claim they do. We need to listen to women. We need to address their concerns and accept their opinions without judgment. We need to share our own stories, even the seemingly trivial parts. That’s the only way to break down stigma, to support women, and to elevate conversation beyond the divisiveness of partisan politics.

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  • matarij

    Yes, I agree that women who have abortions are not consulted or encouraged to share their stories.  In particular it worries me that the after-effects are not spoken about – for some women there are none, for others there are many.  At the very least, counselling services after the event should be offered.  But when I have suggested this in feminist company I have been ignored and dismissed, or told that there are no after effects – and this by young women who have not had an abortion.  I think that not acknowledging the potential after effects is purposely done, because to admit this is seen as giving the anti-choicers more ammunition; but I think that there is a real need to help some women come to terms with their abortions and this needs acknowledging.

  • crowepps

    Of course women who have trouble coming to terms with abortion should get counseling, and they do excatly that without anyone telling them to do so.  Perhaps the reason your suggestion is ignored or dismissed in groups is because it sounds patronizing, as though the women are clueless that counseling exists, or too silly to seek it out themselves.  Women’s clinics don’t discourage women from getting counseling.

     

    Women who are having trouble coping with infertility or repeated miscarriages, with post-partnum depression, with having been raped, or the difficulties of being a parent, or being in an abusive relationship all need counseling, and that is handled by the trained professional staff of community mental health centers and by trained professional private counselors and psychiatrists.

     

    Women who are having trouble coping with abortion have help available to them at exactly the same places from exactly the same professional staff, and segregating ONLY those women out and having their counseling supplied instead by amateur, untrained volunteers, people who have preexisting political and religious agendas, makes no sense at all.  If women who have abortions really truly do need counseling afterwards, the efforts of the sidewalk counselors to divert them into the Christian Regrets Counseling with a one-size-fits-all prescription of Jesus Saves only DELAYS their receiving professional, competent help.

  • radicalhousewife

    Katie, you know I’m already a big fan of your writing.  I appreciate this essay in particular because it illustrates how many layers of stigma we have yet to peel back from a procedure that, as we all know, is ridiculously common!  Thanks for being such a rational, supportive, and eloquent voice for choice.

  • prochoicekatie

    Or maybe it’s because debates over laws are just that much more important than debates of whether women should have to recover from the procedure in the same room. “

     

    My thoughts, perhaps wrong, are that we are having a debate over the recovery room, the procedure room, the hallways, the bathrooms, and the closets. Talk to women in Kansas and Virginia. The problem isn’t that we’re not talking about these aspects. The problem is the context in which we’re talking about them. The problem is that we’re battling for clinicians and providers to choose how to arrange their space based on what is best for their patients. I wish we were in a place where we lobbied doctors and clinics based on patient satisfaction, instead of a place where we lobby politicians who want to pass needless and restrictive legislation about these details. Every aspect of good care is not and should not be a matter of law. And the folks who are lobbying these politicians haven’t forgotten about the women they’re fighting for (not to mention the many who likely fall into both groups), they’re just struggling, and grasping, for the day when women can have these conversations with their friends, sisters, and doctors, and stop having them in the courts.

  • ahunt

    My thoughts, perhaps wrong….The problem is that we’re battling for clinicians and providers to choose how to arrange their space based on what is best for their patients.

     

    I don’t imagine that folks around here are going to be “correcting” you, Katie. 

     

    Good insights.