Conventional wisdom tells us that abortion is one of the most politically contentious issues of our time. Although politicians are increasingly “evolving” on their stance on LGBT rights, they still refuse to budge on abortion. Polling shows that Americans are more polarized than ever on abortion rights. Public opinion about other controversial issues is now measured against abortion, which has emerged as somewhat of the golden standard for divisiveness.
All the evidence is there. But it doesn’t actually provide the whole story.
The way we talk about abortion in this country still relies on a sharp divide between the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps, even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that those labels don’t necessarily fit anymore. Americans have complex feelings about abortion, and many people actually describe themselves as both pro-choice and pro-life. Often, their attitudes about the procedure depend on the individual circumstances surrounding each specific situation. There’s a huge gray area emerging that the political discourse doesn’t necessarily reflect.
“Another way to look at the polling is to say, wow, there’s actually a lot of opportunity for connection,” Aspen Baker, one of the co-founders of the organization Exhale, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “Our results are showing that lots of people are holding two identities together at the same time — how interesting is that, and what’s the opportunity for connection between these people, and how how can that potentially bridge some big divides at the political, cultural, and social level?”
Baker’s organization subscribes to a movement called “Pro-Voice,” a term coined by Exhale back in 2005 to describe an emphasis on honoring people’s personal experiences with abortion. In that context, talking about abortion doesn’t have to be political or divisive. Instead, it’s more about what’s going on in actual people’s lives.
“It’s not what our country is used to from the past 40 years of how we’ve talked about abortion,” Baker said. “When we think about conversation around abortion, we put on our armor and we think about every fact and talking point we have, like we’re all going into battle with every individual conversation. We want to see if it’s possible to sort of strip away that battle mentality.”
When people have a safe space to share their stories about choosing an abortion, it can help strangers form connections — no matter whether they consider themselves to be “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” no matter whether they had a positive or negative experience with abortion, no matter whether they’re celebrating or regretting their choice to end a pregnancy, and no matter whether they feel a range of emotions in between. The “pro-voice” model doesn’t require them to make sure their experience fits neatly into either camp’s assumptions about what an abortion is supposed to be like.
Exhale isn’t the only organization exploring these gray areas. Backline, a group that provides support for people making reproductive decisions, follows the same model of listening to every individual person’s story without any judgment. Backline operates a national talkline that people can call for advice about pregnancy, miscarriages, abortion, birthing options, parenting, and adoption — and it’s currently getting ready to open its first clinic in Indiana, to provide the same range of counseling services face-to-face.
“We are a center that people can come to whatever their personal beliefs are about abortion, or adoption, or anything else, and we will support them,” Parker Dockray, Backline’s executive director, explained. “It’s so unusual to have a talkline that’s working on both abortion and adoption. For some providers, it intrigues them and makes them a little nervous — they wonder if we have some kind of agenda.”
That’s perhaps because the current pregnancy counseling centers in the country do have a clear agenda: an anti-abortion one. Known as “crisis pregnancy centers” (CPCs), these right-wing organizations often use misleading information and deceptive tactics to try to dissuade women from choosing an abortion. Many of them also offer pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, diapers, and baby clothes, which helps get some women in the door.
Backline’s new counseling center “is a response to crisis pregnancy centers, but it’s also something that goes beyond that,” according to Farah Diaz-Tello, the organization’s board chair. The clinic plans to provide the tangible goods for expectant mothers that are available at CPCs, as well as additional services that aren’t offered there, like counseling on birthing and parenting. It will also provide referrals for abortion services.
Essentially, Backline wants to take elements from each of the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps and create a place that provides support for the full range of women’s reproductive health needs.
“Folks here are excited to put Indiana on the map for having the first ever All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center,” Shelly Dodson, the program director working to get the new clinic off the ground, said. “They believe, like Backline does, that this goes beyond the limiting labels of pro-choice or pro-life, and comes down to being able to truly meet people where they are at with dignity and respect — regardless of their pregnancy and parenting decisions and experiences.”
Backline hopes to eventually expand its model and start more counseling centers in other states. Dockray, Diaz-Tello, and Dodson all believe it’s an idea whose time has come, and they’re optimistic about the potential to engage a broader swath of people in their mission.
“I think there is this real interest and hunger for people to get involved in supporting people,” Dockray said. “There are people who would not necessarily volunteer at a CPC, and who also aren’t going to volunteer at a Planned Parenthood or a NARAL or one of the traditional pro-choice organizations — however they may feel about abortion, those places don’t speak to them. So we’ve really been able to tap into a new group of people who want to become active, and I think there’s a huge potential to mobilize those people and help bring them into the reproductive justice movement.”
Over at Exhale, Baker is similarly optimistic that the embattled conversation about reproductive rights will be able to move forward and eventually change Americans’ perception that abortion is inherently divisive. Her organization is preparing to release a documentary that focuses on the gray areas.
“Recycling used to seem like kind of a hippie thing to do, and now everyone in my town has a recycling can!” Baker pointed out. “One of the strengths of our culture is that it’s always shifting, thriving, moving, and being shaped. Abortion is not so special that we can’t ever change the way we think and talk about it.”
So what might replace the current framework? As the media is becoming more open to exploring individual women’s personal abortion stories and highlighting the diversity of experiences around ending a pregnancy, it’s actually not too difficult to imagine. Instead of always talking about abortion in sweeping generalities as a “hot button issue,” we could start talking more about the landscapes of people’s individual lives.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for shifting our approach,” Dockray said. “Someday, I would love for it to not be about, ‘Are you anti-abortion or are you for abortion rights?’ — but instead be about, ‘Do you support people in all of their decisions or not?’ ”