8 Things Not To Say To Someone After Abortion

posted December 23, 2013

This is the list I wish I had ten years ago. After I had an abortion, nobody knew what to say to me. Not even Larry, my therapist. Poor Larry. Looking back, I would not have known what to say to me, either. One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Men, too, deserve to be heard. Yet we are not taught how to talk to people who have experienced abortion.

The first thing to know is that everyone experiences abortion differently. Many of my friends never looked back. Having an abortion just wasn’t a big deal for them. But I had a lot of feelings, you guys. Relief. Regret. Confusion. Doubt. Apathy. Curiosity. Confidence. Overconfidence. Contentment.

It takes a courageous, patient, and empathetic friend to listen to someone share about her or his experience with abortion. As researcher Dr. Brené Brown explains, “Empathy is feeling with people.” Thank you for coming over here and feeling with us.

1. But weren’t you unstable before the abortion?

We’re smart people. We are fully aware of the lives we’ve led. If our state of mind beforehand seems relevant, then we will discuss it in our own time. We came to you because we would like to talk about how we feel right now.

What to say: I’m glad you came to talk to me about this.

2. That was years ago, dollface. Isn’t it time to move on?

We know exactly how much time has elapsed. If we could have moved on already, we would have. Some people see their abortion as the loss of their identity, or their child, or their chance. While it is important to make no assumptions about why someone is having feelings around their abortion, you can tell us you know how normal we are for feeling the way we do. We are completely acceptable as-is.

What to say: I know this happened years ago, and it’s okay if you’re still really, really sad.

3. All this sadness makes you sound like you’re against abortion.

Our emotions may have nothing to do with our opinion about abortion. I know women who have marched on Washington for their right to choose while privately regretting their own decisions. I know women who believe very deeply that abortion is wrong while feeling that abortion was the right decision for them. Our personal stories do not always reflect our political beliefs. When we come to you, please do not match our emotions to a political narrative.

What to say: There’s no right or wrong way to feel.

4. You weren’t ready for a baby.

This tells us that we are inferior, irresponsible, and immature, which is simply not true. We made the most mature, responsible decisions we could at the time. Some of us feel proud of the independence we gained from all the footwork this decision required. If we tell you we didn’t have access to the resources we needed, feel with us. Remember a time when you didn’t have what you needed. Acknowledge that we are worthy of having everything we need. All of us.

What to say: Sounds like you know what’s best for you.

5. Well, I support your right to choose.

This one sounds like support, but it ends the conversation. What we need is space to connect with you. If we would like to know your political views, please trust us to ask you. If we don’t ask, then perhaps we don’t need to know.

What to say: Take your time — I’m listening.

6. I don’t support what you did, but I’m here to support you.

It can be difficult to feel unconditionally loved and supported by someone who condemns what you did. You don’t have to support what we did, but when you are supporting us, please leave your opinions and expectations at the door. Then come in, listen to what we are saying, and try to put yourself in our shoes.

What to say: I’m here to support you.

7. No — it was actually a baby/child/fetus/embryo/zygote/clump of cells.

Many of us have done the research. We know the terminology. Sometimes it takes nerve to use the word we like best. Please don’t correct us. Instead, use our terminology when you talk to us.

What to say: You’re allowed to call it a fetus or a baby — it was yours and you can call it whatever you want.

8. But are you really happy now?

Some of us really are very happy right after the procedure for reasons so vast and diverse that I could write about them for pages. Even if we’re not happy right afterward, many of us become happy in our own time. If we tell you that we’re happy, we may have done a lot of work to reach this extraordinary place. Please celebrate with us. Do a little dance. Hip-bump. Yay.

What to say: I’m glad you feel relieved and rejuvenated.

If you have experienced abortion, what would you add to this list? What would you change?

 * * *

I read an earlier version of this list at “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts: Can Choose!,” a variety show for the women of Texas, hosted by comedians Sarah Silverman and Lizz Winstead. This piece was first published on Medium.com

Kassi Underwood writes and speaks about abortion all over the place, including The New York Times, The New York Daily News, New York Magazine, and on UpWorthy.com and MSNBC’s “Melissa Harris-Perry Show,” among others venues. Follow her on Twitter: @kassiunderwood.

7 Comments

"But you can try again later when it's a better time". This statement doesn't really help how you're feeling at the moment.

Totally. Listening is not pointing at the future and telling someone to feel hope.

The thought of talking about these experiences– much less expecting compassionate listening – is as foreign to me as a distant planet. I am an older woman who has lived in silence for decades in a region where such discussions endanger women’s psychological as well as physical health.

Yet I feel such hope for young women now. Leaders like you are changing the cultural landscape, one conversation, one blog, one speech, one interview, one Tweet at a time. Thank you so much for all you do.

#2 on your list is of special interest to me – the passage of time.

Young women begin with varied feelings about their reproductive decision, but over the years those feelings become compounded and confused by the relentless barrage of shaming messages. These cruel taunts and jeers are not just in the headlines, but woven into movie scripts, plastered on billboards, stuck to car bumpers, and the list goes on without end.

I would hope a counselor would say:

It’s been a long time. You’ve been subjected to never-ending public venom from churches, politicians, colleagues, neighbors. To what degree do you think your feelings are attributable to our broad culture of shame, as opposed to your personal reproductive decision?

Another desirable response of a listener/therapist: Have you explored how you would feel – both initially and over time -- about your reproductive decision if you had been able to act in a community of respect, rather than in a society that defines you as a killer?

The original context of our situations is important. Most women in the world make this choice within a context of social disapproval and condemnation. There are no true parallels, because our topic is uniquely nuanced. But this analogy comes close: Soldiers take lives, yet they often choose to take on this role in a context of honor, respect and widespread approval. How would they feel about signing up if they were berated, shamed, threatened and ostracized as murderers rather than lauded as heroes?

My hope is that researchers with organizations such as ANSIRH and Ipas will someday be able to untangle these knots and tease out the discrete forces at play. To my eyes, two distinct threads, so easily conflated, create a kind of chicken-and-egg puzzle for individual women. Does the choice for the procedure cause painful feelings? Or does the harsh, incessant voice of society cause them?

Maybe I am talking nonsense. But one fact is beyond doubt – women like you are making the world a better, safer place for women and everyone. I admire you so much.

Olive, this is amazing! Thank you so much for taking the time to write down the dialogue that you would hope a counselor would say. I love that you know exactly how you'd need someone to support you. I think there are all different reasons why people experience painful feelings after abortion, and certainly, for me and plenty of others, the social context is one of them. I'm grateful that you put that to words. Rock on.

But you (or we) didn't want children...

I have tried to explain this to my partner. i never wanted any children before the abortion, that is true. But when you meet someone who you love so much, more than anyone in the world, and you find yourself faced with a unplanned pregnancy, what you "think" you wanted, changes in an instant. I still don't want children, but I did want THAT child...because it was ours and because I love him so very much. Now I understand what women mean when they say you will never know what it's like to love something as much as you love a child. He just can't understand why I wanted it when I never wanted kids before that. He will never understand how extremely hard the decision to abort was. Even with the bad timing, the fact that we didn't want kids, weren't married, etc etc etc, he will still never understand why this decision was nearly impossible for me. He won't be the person who looks back years later and says "what if?" That is my burden to bear and I wish there was a way for him to understand what I went through. Even though I know all the "facts" about why abortion was the right choice, it was still the hardest thing I have EVER done in my life.

"But now you don't have to give up your life, and your college/future plans aren't ruined."

I can think of a few more, but they were touched on above.

I had an abortion when my daughter was 11. So many any comment about how my daughter would want a sibling or it not being a good example for her is the wrong comment.

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