New Perspectives on Abortion: The Pro-Voice Framework
Reproductive justice was created as a response to the polarizing and non-inclusive political debates surrounding “pro-choice” and “pro-life” abortion politics. With this shift, advocates began to understand that women and people of color need more than just access to a safe and legal abortion. The connection between reproductive rights and other issues like education, economics, violence, and healthcare is now being promoted throughout this comprehensive and inclusive framework. This shift within the culture of American social change, fosters the creation of multi-issue movements that can communicate and collaborate with each other in order to achieve optimum change. In the politics of abortion care, having access to a variety of social change tools strengthens and promotes the movement. However, this political underpinning can also cause problems when labels create dichotomies within the issue and individuals become at risk of being exploited to support a particular political agenda.
In order to unravel politics from the personal experiences of women, one group is working to change the way we talk about abortion. Exhale, founded in 2000 by Aspen Baker, is an organization that works to address the emotional needs of pregnant people and their loved ones who have experienced an abortion. Their after-abortion talk line, postcard project, and private online community provide safe spaces for women to discuss their personal experiences in an environment that is neither pro-life nor pro-choice. Instead, Exhale is pro-voice. This approach, which “creat[s] a social climate where each person’s unique experience with abortion is supported, respected, and free from stigma,” stresses the importance of empathy and listening to stories.
If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like social work, you’re right. Our profession is one of the only whose guiding philosophy is to support individuals in reaching their healthiest desired potential. Baker’s discussion about the importance of person-centered storytelling and living in the gray areas sounds a lot like the role of a social worker, while after-abortion talk line counselors fulfill the role of validating caller’s emotions and connecting them to resources. Their strengths-based approach highlights options and resources as counselors work to discover what wellbeing means to the individual caller. In terms of after-abortion care, the pro-voice framework provides a nonjudgmental service to many people effected by abortion. It values their emotions while respecting their beliefs and working towards their goals. This approach, Baker argues, leads people from conflict to conversation.
Providing a safe space for people to share their abortion stories is a much needed service, however, many people feel that abortion is too inextricably intertwined with other politically charged issues (e.g. oppression due to male dominated culture) to separate it out completely. While I agree that our two party system of abortion politics is greatly inadequate at capturing the complexities of the issue, developing a philosophy about abortion without acknowledging its political aspects seems false. In fact, it could be said that this framework fails to tackle important aspects of our society that negatively impact utilizers of abortion services and leads to the necessity of Exhale’s services. In terms of social work, this seems very reminiscent of our profession’s current focus on micro level practice. While both are necessary to creating a holistic approach to interventions, many issues faced on the micro level could be alleviated if positive change was achieved on the macro level. Both practices alone are not enough to stimulate change.
The social dialogue generated by models like Exhale Pro-Voice can help to inform future policy and create “a social climate free from abortion stigma, where each person can find respect and support for their personal experience.” No matter your opinion on the pro-voice movement, creating a world free from stigma where self-determination is valued above all is something we can all agree on.
In addition to Exhale other “pro-voice” resources include:
Elizabeth Borngraber is a graduate student in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work in New York state whose studies and interests are focused around women’s health and rights, healthcare access, and policy.