Aspen Baker: What's A Better Way To Talk About Abortion? The strong emotions sparked by abortion leave little room for thoughtful debate. To cut through the tension, Aspen Baker says we should openly tell and listen to stories about women who had abortions.

What's A Better Way To Talk About Abortion?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So a few months after graduating from college, Aspen Baker was working at a bar in Berkeley, Calif, when she found out she was pregnant.

ASPEN BAKER: I was thinking I was going to be a mom. I'm pregnant, so I'm going to be a mom. And that was terrifying.

RAZ: There was no other way to look at it. This was it.

BAKER: Yeah. When you're pregnant, you have a baby. So that's where I was, yeah.

RAZ: For Aspen, an abortion was completely out of the question. She'd grown up in a pretty conservative home, although not in the typical way.

BAKER: By parents were surfers. We grew up on the beach, and we were Christian.

RAZ: Like, Christian hippies? - like Christian conservatives? - or, like, a hybrid of those things?

BAKER: I was certainly raised in a conservative environment. You know, abortion was wrong, and people shouldn't have abortions. But I was also raised with a very, like, God-is-a-loving-god idea.

RAZ: And so when Aspen told her boyfriend that they were going to have a baby, he said he wasn't ready to be a father. And so she started to wonder about her options - whether maybe an abortion was the right choice for her - or not.

BAKER: Every day that I was pregnant, I would wake up one day and be like - I'm going to be a mom, and here's what this is going to look like. And, you know, I'm going to have to move back home. And I'm going to have to do this. And - can you be a bartender and be pregnant? - because that's, you know (laughter) - trying to sort of imagine what that would look like.

And then the next day, I'd wake up and I'd say - oh, I'm going to have an abortion. And then I'd kind of spend the day thinking about, like, what that would mean and how that would feel.

RAZ: This was a huge conflict for you.

BAKER: Yes. I was living a very big existential crisis.

RAZ: And one night after work in the middle of that crisis, Aspen sat down with her friend Polly (ph).

BAKER: We closed up shop at 2 a.m. and we usually always had a drink together. And I didn't have a drink. And she was like - why? Are you pregnant? (Laughter) And I was, like, yes.

And then she told me she'd an abortion. And she was the first person who'd ever told me that they'd had an abortion. And I remember thinking - oh, I really like her. She seems to be doing OK. And she had an abortion, so maybe it doesn't ruin you for life.

RAZ: That moment really made Aspen begin to see that women who had abortions weren't these anonymous, invisible people. They were her friends. And after thinking about it some more, Aspen decided to have an abortion. She says part of her was relieved. But then there was another really big question she was facing.

BAKER: I just did this thing that I said I would never do. And well, who am I now?

I found out that a lot of other people in my life had had abortions. But they hadn't told me because they knew that I identified as pro-life. And that was one of the most heartbreaking things to realize.

RAZ: They thought you would judge them.

BAKER: They thought I would judge them, and so they never told me about theirs. And it wasn't until I had mine and told them that they felt safe enough. And that broke my heart.

RAZ: And it was at that point when Aspen realized that even though we hear so much talk about abortion rights and debates and laws and regulations, we don't hear nearly as much from the women who actually have abortions - and their stories.

BAKER: Because when you start talking to real people about their real experiences, it gets much more messy and much more chaotic and much more difficult to fit easily into a box. And that seemed important. It seemed important to kind of disrupt this black-and-white, you know, us-versus-them, are-you-with-us-or-against-us kind of thinking with more humanity.

RAZ: So about 15 years ago, Aspen decided to start an organization called Exhale. And it's a place where women can get support after an abortion - free of any judgment. Aspen explained how it works on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BAKER: The first thing we did was create a talk line where women and men could call to get emotional support - free of judgment and politics. Believe it or not, nothing like our service had ever existed.

And we needed a new framework that could hold all the experiences that we were hearing on our talk line - the feminist who regrets her abortion, the Catholic who's grateful for hers - the personal experiences that weren't fitting neatly into one box or the other. And we didn't think it was right to ask women to pick a side. We wanted to show them that the whole world was on their side as they were going through this deeply personal experience. So we invented Pro-Voice.

Listening and storytelling are the hallmarks of Pro-Voice practice. Listening and storytelling - that sounds pretty nice. Sounds, maybe, easy - we could all do that. It's not easy. It's very hard. And if we truly listen to one another, we will hear things that demand that we shift our own perceptions.

RAZ: It's very complicated because even the language that we use around abortion is almost intolerant. Like, that person is anti-choice. That person is pro-choice. That person is pro-life. This person is pro-abortion. Nobody really agrees on the language.

BAKER: Yeah. The language becomes this way to not have the conversation.

RAZ: Yeah.

BAKER: And so we kind of label the other side. And then we're offended by the way that they label us. And then it becomes, like, a fight about the labels. So if we come at it in a different way, though, and if we start from the place that's personal, it really changes the tone. And it changes the climate.

These are not debate skills.

RAZ: Yeah.

BAKER: This is not about an argument. This is about our shared human connection.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BAKER: So let's talk about listening and how to be a good listener. One is to ask open-ended questions. You can ask yourself or someone that you know - how are you feeling? What was that like? What do you hope for?

So another way to be Pro-Voice is to share stories. And one risk that you take on when you share your story with someone else is that given the same set of circumstances as you, they might actually make a different decision. For example, if you are telling a story about your abortion, realize that she might have had the baby. She might have placed for adoption. She might have felt relief and confidence even though you felt sad and lost. This is OK.

Empathy gets created the moment we imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes. It doesn't mean that we all have to end up in the same place. It's not agreement - it's not sameness that Pro-Voice is after. It creates a culture and a society that values what makes us special and unique. And it generates the empathy that we need to overcome all the ways that we try to hurt one another.

RAZ: Aspen Baker returns in just a minute. Our show today - ideas for moving beyond tolerance. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listing to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about how to move beyond tolerance on some of the most polarizing, politicized issues in the world. And we were just hearing from Aspen Baker. She runs an organization called Exhale. It provides support to women after they have abortions. Aspen calls herself pro-voice. And that basically means that she just listens to people's stories in a nonjudgmental way. And that's something quite different from the charged conversations we typically hear about abortion.

BAKER: And so the important part of how we unlock that conflict and unlock that polarization is to find out what we're not hearing, what we're missing, what's hidden, what's underneath. And that is the voices and experiences of women who have had abortions and their friends and loved ones.

RAZ: You know, Aspen, part of, I think what might make it so hard to find common ground about abortion is that, you know, there are people who really - who see it as murder, that it is - it's something that is an act of violence. And so it's got to be really hard for that person to, you know, sort of be tolerant towards somebody who's had an abortion.

BAKER: I think that it's very hard to be tolerant period of people who do things that you disagree with and who you think that are bad or wrong or immoral. There's no easy, simple solution about, like, you know, if you just really think about it in this way...

RAZ: Yeah.

BAKER: That's not how it's going to work. I think that there's often an assumption that women who are having abortions don't know what they're doing or that they aren't having the same moral or ethical quandaries as everybody else. And I think that is the opportunity that if we understand and give room to sort of hear how did you navigate your values and beliefs as you were making the decision to have an abortion? That is a very different way into the conversation than to just say it's all right or it's all wrong.

RAZ: Do you think that we'll ever get to a point where the topic of abortion will be something that we can talk about in a depoliticized way?

BAKER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, that - I don't think that the political conversation about abortion will ever go away and I don't think it necessarily should go away. But what I would like to see is that it is no longer the only conversation that is available to us about abortion and that there becomes much more of a human conversation even if we have different political beliefs about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BAKER: So last year, I was pregnant again. This time, I was looking forward to the birth of my son. And while pregnant, I had never been asked how I was feeling so much in all my life.

(LAUGHTER)

BAKER: And however I replied, whether I was feeling wonderful and excited or scared and totally freaked out, there was always someone there giving me a been-there response. It was awesome. It was a welcome, yet dramatic departure from what I experience when I talk about my mixed feelings of my abortion. Far beyond definition as single right or wrong decisions, our experiences can exist on a spectrum. Pro-voice focuses that conversation on human experience, and it makes support and respect possible for all. Thank You.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Aspen Baker is a founder and executive director of Exhale. You can check out her entire TED Talk at ted.com.

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