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.