It was the middle of summer and well past closing time in the downtown Berkeley bar where my friend Polly and I worked together as bartenders. Usually at the end of our shift we had a drink — but not that night. "I'm pregnant. Not sure what I'm going to do yet," I told Polly. Without hesitation, she replied, "I've had an abortion." Before Polly, no one had ever told me that she'd had an abortion. I'd graduated from college just a few months earlier and I was in a new relationship when I found out that I was pregnant. When I thought about my choices, I honestly did not know how to decide, what criteria I should use. How would I know what the right decision was? I worried that I would regret an abortion later. Coming of age on the beaches of Southern California, I grew up in the middle of our nation's abortion wars. I was born in a trailer on the third anniversary of Roe vs. Wade. Our community was surfing Christians. We cared about God, the less fortunate, and the ocean. Everyone was pro-life. As a kid, the idea of abortion made me so sad that I knew if I ever got pregnant I could never have one. And then I did. It was a step towards the unknown. But Polly had given me a very special gift: the knowledge that I wasn't alone and the realization that abortion was something that we can talk about. Abortion is common. According to the Guttmacher Institute, one in three women in America will have an abortion in their lifetime. But for the last few decades, the dialogue around abortion in the United States has left little room for anything beyond pro-life and pro-choice. It's political and polarizing.
But as much as abortion is hotly debated, it's still rare for us, whether as fellow women or even just as fellow people, to talk with one another about the abortions that we have. There is a gap. Between what happens in politics and what happens in real life, and in that gap, a battlefield mentality. An "are you with us or against us?" stance takes root. This isn't just about abortion. There are so many important issues that we can't talk about. And so finding ways to shift the conflict to a place of conversation is the work of my life. There are two main ways to get started. One way is to listen closely. And the other way is to share stories. So, 15 years ago, I cofounded an organization called Exhale to start listening to people who have had abortions. 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 sevice had ever existed. 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 is grateful for hers. The personal experiences that weren't fitting neatly into one box or the other. 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."
Beyond abortion, pro-voice works on hard issues that we've struggled with globally for years, issues like immigration, religious tolerance, violence against women. It also works on deeply personal topics that might only matter to you and your immediate family and friends. They have a terminal illness, their mother just died, they have a child with special needs and they can't talk about it. 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. Pro-voice is hard because we are talking about things everyone's fighting about or the things that no one wants to talk about. I wish I could tell you that when you decide to be pro-voice, that you'll find beautiful moments of breakthrough and gardens full of flowers, where listening and storytelling creates wonderful "a-ha" moments. I wish I could tell you that there would be a feminist welcoming party for you, or that there's a long-lost sisterhood of people who are just ready to have your back when you get slammed. But it can be vulnerable and exhausting to tell our own stories when it feels like nobody cares. And if we truly listen to one another, we will hear things that demand that we shift our own perceptions. There is no perfect time and there is no perfect place to start a difficult conversation. There's never a time when everyone will be on the same page, share the same lens, or know the same history. So, let's talk about listening and how to be a good listener. There's lots of ways to be a good listener and I'm going to give you just a couple. 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, now?" Another way to be a good listener is to use reflective language. If someone is talking about their own personal experience, use the words that they use. If someone is talking about an abortion and they say the word "baby," you can say "baby." If they say "fetus," you can say "fetus." If someone describes themselves as gender queer to you, you can say "gender queer." If someone kind of looks like a he, but they say they're a she — it's cool. Call that person a she. When we reflect the language of the person who is sharing their own story, we are conveying that we are interested in understanding who they are and what they're going through. The same way that we hope people are interested in knowing us. So, I'll never forget being in one of the Exhale counselor meetings, listening to a volunteer talk about how she was getting a lot of calls from Christian women who were talking about God. Now, some of our volunteers are religious, but this particular one was not. At first, it felt a little weird for her to talk to callers about God. So, she decided to get comfortable. And she stood in front of her mirror at home, and she said the word "God." "God." "God." "God." "God." "God." "God." Over and over and over again until the word no longer felt strange coming out her mouth. Saying the word God did not turn this volunteer into a Christian, but it did make her a much better listener of Christian women. 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're telling a story about your abortion, realize that she might have had the baby. She might have placed for adoption. She might have told her parents and her partner — or not. She might have felt relief and confidence, even though you felt sad and lost. This is okay. Empathy gets created the moment we imagine ourselves in someone else's shoes. It doesn't mean 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 make us special and unique. It values what makes us human, our flaws and our imperfections. And this way of thinking allows us to see our differences with respect, instead of fear. And it generates the empathy that we need to overcome all the ways that we try to hurt one another. Stigma, shame, prejudice, discrimination, oppression. Pro-voice is contagious, and the more it's practiced the more it spreads. 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) 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. Pro-voice is about the real stories of real people making an impact on the way abortion and so many other politicized and stigmatized issues are understood and discussed. From sexuality and mental health to poverty and incarceration. 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)