TEDWomen 2015

Aspen Baker: A better way to talk about abortion

Filmed:

Abortion is extremely common. In America, for example, one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime, yet the strong emotions sparked by the topic -- and the highly politicized rhetoric around it -- leave little room for thoughtful, open debate. In this personal, thoughtful talk, Aspen Baker makes the case for being neither “pro-life” nor “pro-choice” but rather "pro-voice" -- and for the roles that listening and storytelling can play when it comes to discussing difficult topics.

- Listener
As abortion debates have turned black-and-white, Aspen Baker advocates being "pro-voice" -- listening respectfully and compassionately to all kinds of experiences. Full bio

It was the middle of summer
and well past closing time
00:12
in the downtown Berkeley bar
where my friend Polly and I
00:15
worked together as bartenders.
00:17
Usually at the end of our shift
we had a drink -- but not that night.
00:20
"I'm pregnant.
00:25
Not sure what I'm going
to do yet," I told Polly.
00:27
Without hesitation, she replied,
"I've had an abortion."
00:30
Before Polly, no one had ever told me
that she'd had an abortion.
00:34
I'd graduated from college
just a few months earlier
00:40
and I was in a new relationship
when I found out that I was pregnant.
00:43
When I thought about my choices,
I honestly did not know how to decide,
00:47
what criteria I should use.
00:52
How would I know what
the right decision was?
00:55
I worried that I would regret
an abortion later.
00:58
Coming of age on the beaches
of Southern California,
01:02
I grew up in the middle of
our nation's abortion wars.
01:05
I was born in a trailer on the third
anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.
01:09
Our community was surfing Christians.
01:15
We cared about God, the less fortunate,
and the ocean.
01:18
Everyone was pro-life.
01:21
As a kid, the idea of abortion made me so
sad that I knew if I ever got pregnant
01:24
I could never have one.
01:29
And then I did.
01:33
It was a step towards the unknown.
01:36
But Polly had given me
a very special gift:
01:39
the knowledge that I wasn't alone
01:42
and the realization that abortion
was something that we can talk about.
01:44
Abortion is common.
01:48
According to the Guttmacher Institute,
one in three women in America
01:51
will have an abortion in their lifetime.
01:54
But for the last few decades, the dialogue
around abortion in the United States
01:59
has left little room for anything beyond
pro-life and pro-choice.
02:03
It's political and polarizing.
02:07
But as much as abortion is hotly debated,
it's still rare for us,
02:10
whether as fellow women
or even just as fellow people,
02:14
to talk with one another
about the abortions that we have.
02:18
There is a gap.
02:23
Between what happens in politics
and what happens in real life,
02:25
and in that gap, a battlefield mentality.
02:29
An "are you with us
or against us?" stance takes root.
02:31
This isn't just about abortion.
02:35
There are so many important issues
that we can't talk about.
02:38
And so finding ways to shift the conflict
to a place of conversation
02:44
is the work of my life.
02:49
There are two main ways to get started.
02:53
One way is to listen closely.
02:56
And the other way is to share stories.
02:58
So, 15 years ago, I cofounded
an organization called Exhale
03:02
to start listening to people
who have had abortions.
03:06
The first thing we did was create
a talk-line, where women and men
03:10
could call to get emotional support.
03:13
Free of judgment and politics,
believe it or not, nothing like our sevice
03:16
had ever existed.
03:20
We needed a new framework that could
hold all the experiences that we were
03:24
hearing on our talk-line.
03:28
The feminist who regrets her abortion.
03:30
The Catholic who is grateful for hers.
03:33
The personal experiences that weren't
fitting neatly into one box or the other.
03:35
We didn't think it was right
to ask women to pick a side.
03:41
We wanted to show them that
the whole world was on their side,
03:45
as they were going through this deeply
personal experience.
03:50
So we invented "pro-voice."
03:54
Beyond abortion, pro-voice works on hard
issues that we've struggled with globally
03:58
for years,
04:02
issues like immigration, religious
tolerance, violence against women.
04:03
It also works on deeply personal topics
that might only matter to you
04:09
and your immediate family and friends.
04:13
They have a terminal illness,
their mother just died,
04:15
they have a child with special needs
and they can't talk about it.
04:19
Listening and storytelling are
the hallmarks of pro-voice practice.
04:25
Listening and storytelling.
04:31
That sounds pretty nice.
04:33
Sounds maybe, easy?
We could all do that.
04:35
It's not easy.
It's very hard.
04:38
Pro-voice is hard because we are talking
about things everyone's fighting about
04:42
or the things that no one
wants to talk about.
04:48
I wish I could tell you that when you
decide to be pro-voice, that you'll find
04:51
beautiful moments of breakthrough
and gardens full of flowers,
04:58
where listening and storytelling
creates wonderful "a-ha" moments.
05:02
I wish I could tell you that there would
be a feminist welcoming party for you,
05:07
or that there's a long-lost sisterhood
of people who are just ready
05:11
to have your back when you get slammed.
05:14
But it can be vulnerable and exhausting
to tell our own stories
05:18
when it feels like nobody cares.
05:22
And if we truly listen to one another,
05:26
we will hear things that demand
that we shift our own perceptions.
05:30
There is no perfect time
and there is no perfect place
05:37
to start a difficult conversation.
05:40
There's never a time when everyone will be
on the same page, share the same lens,
05:43
or know the same history.
05:49
So, let's talk about listening
and how to be a good listener.
05:52
There's lots of ways to be a good listener
and I'm going to give you just a couple.
05:58
One is to ask open-ended questions.
06:02
You can ask yourself or someone
that you know,
06:05
"How are you feeling?"
06:08
"What was that like?"
06:11
"What do you hope for, now?"
06:13
Another way to be a good listener
is to use reflective language.
06:18
If someone is talking about
their own personal experience,
06:22
use the words that they use.
06:25
If someone is talking about an abortion
and they say the word "baby,"
06:27
you can say "baby."
06:31
If they say "fetus,"
you can say "fetus."
06:33
If someone describes themselves
as gender queer to you,
06:36
you can say "gender queer."
06:39
If someone kind of looks like a he,
but they say they're a she -- it's cool.
06:41
Call that person a she.
06:45
When we reflect the language of the person
who is sharing their own story,
06:47
we are conveying that we are interested
in understanding who they are
06:51
and what they're going through.
06:56
The same way that we hope people are
interested in knowing us.
06:59
So, I'll never forget being in one
of the Exhale counselor meetings,
07:04
listening to a volunteer talk about how
she was getting a lot of calls
07:08
from Christian women who
were talking about God.
07:12
Now, some of our volunteers are religious,
but this particular one was not.
07:15
At first, it felt a little weird for her
to talk to callers about God.
07:20
So, she decided to get comfortable.
07:24
And she stood in front of her mirror
at home, and she said the word "God."
07:27
"God."
07:31
"God."
07:32
"God."
07:33
"God."
07:34
"God."
07:35
"God."
07:36
Over and over and over again
until the word no longer felt strange
07:37
coming out her mouth.
07:40
Saying the word God did not turn this
volunteer into a Christian,
07:43
but it did make her a much
better listener of Christian women.
07:47
So, another way to be pro-voice
is to share stories,
07:54
and one risk that you take on, when you
share your story with someone else,
07:58
is that given the same
set of circumstances as you
08:02
they might actually
make a different decision.
08:05
For example, if you're telling a story
about your abortion,
08:09
realize that she might have had the baby.
08:13
She might have placed for adoption.
08:18
She might have told her parents
and her partner -- or not.
08:21
She might have felt relief and confidence,
even though you felt sad and lost.
08:26
This is okay.
08:32
Empathy gets created the moment we
imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes.
08:35
It doesn't mean we all have
to end up in the same place.
08:41
It's not agreement, it's not sameness
that pro-voice is after.
08:46
It creates a culture and a society that
values what make us special and unique.
08:53
It values what makes us human,
our flaws and our imperfections.
08:59
And this way of thinking allows us to see
our differences with respect,
09:04
instead of fear.
09:09
And it generates the empathy that we need
09:12
to overcome all the ways
that we try to hurt one another.
09:14
Stigma, shame, prejudice,
discrimination, oppression.
09:17
Pro-voice is contagious,
and the more it's practiced
09:24
the more it spreads.
09:29
So, last year I was pregnant again.
09:34
This time I was looking forward
to the birth of my son.
09:38
And while pregnant, I had never been asked
how I was feeling so much in all my life.
09:42
(Laughter)
09:48
And however I replied, whether I was
feeling wonderful and excited
09:50
or scared and totally freaked out,
09:54
there was always someone there
giving me a "been there" response.
09:57
It was awesome.
10:01
It was a welcome, yet dramatic
departure from what I experience
10:03
when I talk about
my mixed feelings of my abortion.
10:08
Pro-voice is about the real stories
of real people
10:12
making an impact on the way abortion
10:16
and so many other politicized
and stigmatized issues
10:19
are understood and discussed.
10:23
From sexuality and mental health
to poverty and incarceration.
10:25
Far beyond definition
as single right or wrong decisions,
10:31
our experiences can exist on a spectrum.
10:34
Pro-voice focuses that conversation
on human experience
10:40
and it makes support and respect
possible for all.
10:44
Thank you.
10:50
(Applause)
10:52

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About the Speaker:

Aspen Baker - Listener
As abortion debates have turned black-and-white, Aspen Baker advocates being "pro-voice" -- listening respectfully and compassionately to all kinds of experiences.

Why you should listen
When Aspen Baker had an abortion at 24, she felt caught between warring pro-life and pro-choice factions, with no space to share her feelings. So she cofounded Exhale, a nonprofit that offers women and men emotional support after an abortion, free of judgment and politics. After being constantly asked to pick a side in the abortion conflict, Baker and her cofounders started a new conversation.

Leaving the black-and-white debate behind, they embraced the gray areas and personal stories hidden behind the fight. They invented “pro-voice,” a philosophy and practice that uses listening and storytelling to help people have respectful, compassionate exchanges about abortion, and many other controversial topics. Called a “fun, fearless female” by Cosmopolitan, Baker is an award-winning leader and author of Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight.
More profile about the speaker
Aspen Baker | Speaker | TED.com