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Moral Jujitsu

Aspen Baker Posted by Aspen Baker.

Aspen Baker is the leading voice in the nation on how to transform the abortion conflict.


Moral Jujitsu

Exhale

The following is a special, exclusive excerpt from Chapter Four of Pro-Voice-- How To Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight.  It shows how simple human acts of love and support can confound and outrage both sides of a tough controversy-- but ultimately, they're the only thing that works.  

Journalist Emily Bazelon brought national awareness to the subject of postabortion counseling in her 2007 New York Times Magazine cover story “Is There a Post-Abortion Syndrome?” Her article showed how the political conflict over abortion had an impact on the way both sides addressed the topic. She wrote, “Anti-abortion advocates exaggerate the mental-health risks of abortion [and] some abortion advocates play down the emotional aftereffects.” Conflicting ideologies determined each side’s approach.

Even though the pro-life activists worried about abortion’s emotional aftermath, they weren’t trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies or to help women support their babies. Instead, they focused on restricting and banning the procedure. In response to the “abortion hurts women” message, many pro-choice activists tried to explain away difficult feelings, attributing them to other underlying issues taking place in the lives of women. One activist, Ava Torre-Bueno, author of the book Peace After Abortion, admitted, “The last thing pro-choice people, myself included, want to do is to give people who want to make abortions harder to get or illegal one iota of help.” The public conversation about abortion emotions had finally begun.

Just three months after Bazelon’s article was published, Exhale launched a series of postabortion e-cards. Within a day, the Associated Press published an article about our “Hallmark cards for abortion,” and Rush Limbaugh took me to task on his radio show: “Now, this Baker babe, founder and executive director of Exhale [exhaling] said that she was ‘unaware of anybody else providing after-abortion sympathy cards online.’ How convoluted is this? If you’re going to send a sympathy card to anybody after an abortion, shouldn’t it be the aborted fetus?”14

By the time the week was over, I had done more than 20 radio and TV interviews, the majority of which were on conservative talk radio shows, including an hour live with the nationally syndicated Michael Medved and an appearance on Fox News with Martha MacCallum, where I debated the vice president of the Family Research Council.

Controversy erupted.

Carol Lloyd, a writer at Salon, practically patted my colleagues and me on the head, commenting, “The women at Exhale couldn’t have known what they were getting themselves into. Antiabortionist bloggers are having a field day.”15 On CNN’s Paula Zahn Now, pundits questioned whether the whole thing was a publicity stunt, though Roland Martin was forced to acknowledge that the faith-based e-card we offered—“The promise of God is to be with us through all of life’s transitions. God will never leave you or forsake you. May you find comfort in God’s constant love. Know that my prayers are with you at this time”—was biblically sound. Pro-life blogs expressed confusion and dismay over our different messages, incredulous that our selection of e-cards had messages to address both grief and encouragement.

What, everyone seemed to wonder, were the women of Exhale thinking?

Since the launch of the talkline four years earlier, Exhale counselors had heard men and other loved ones express how difficult it was to find the right words to express their love and care to someone who had had an abortion. It was clear that even if people didn’t agree with an abortion decision, they were still interested in showing a loved one that they cared. They just needed a little direction. As volunteers kept taking these calls, we started to think about how Exhale could help these significant others find the right words.

We wanted to find a culturally relevant way to help significant others show their loved ones who had had an abortion that they cared for them.

Hallmark. Greeting cards. We use cards in times of grief and loss and in times of celebration and joy. There is literally a greeting card for everything from divorce to TGIF. Exhale couldn’t possibly afford or manage designing and selling individual printed greeting cards, but what could we do on the Internet?

On March 13, 2007, we launched six different postabortion e-cards on our website with messages about grief and loss, encouragement and support, including the infamous faith-based message for Christian and Catholic women who have had abortions.

The hate mail came quickly, instigated by Limbaugh. The phones rang off the hook with media requests, mostly from conservative outlets. My coworkers and I felt attacked, under siege. We wanted to defend ourselves, to fight back, to come out swinging. And yet, we knew that we had the rare chance to try something different, to resist getting sucked into the same old us-versus-them abortion battle. Our team made a choice: we would approach every hater and every attack with unconditional love and compassion.

We compiled a list of behaviors for ourselves, and we wrote them in big letters on a piece of flip-chart paper and posted it to the wall: Empathy. Love. Compassion. We committed ourselves to treating respectfully those who attacked and threatened us.

I released the anger that I felt toward Rush Limbaugh and his listeners who flooded our inbox with their vitriol. I saw them as the distractions they were, attempts to force Exhale to join the fight, to act with hostility instead of empathy. I chose to keep listening. I let go of the need to defend myself or Exhale. Instead, I used every media opportunity to reach out beyond the attackers and speak directly to the audience, letting them know that Exhale was a place of comfort and care. My message would never have come through as genuine if I had come off as outraged, defensive, or bitter.

The only way to promote compassion was to practice it, fearlessly and publicly.

Over 5,000 e-cards were sent that week alone. Today, other organizations make their own e-cards for a range of stigmatized identities and events, from abortion to the celebration of queer and poor families and single moms. Pro-voice utilizes cultural tools to generate respect for marginalized experiences, promoting individual and community health and wellbeing while shifting social norms to greater acceptance.

Visit Exhale's website and see the e-card tool here.