Northwest Abortion Conversation Asks Hard Questions

Grayson Dempsey

Stepping out of one's comfort zone, asking the tough questions about what it means to be pro-choice, exposing one's fears and learning about fellow advocates—the Abortion Conversation Project addresses it all.

As an activist who has worked in the abortion rights movement for almost ten years, I know well the hesitation that comes when I am seated comfortably on a cross-country flight and the person next to me asks, "So what do you do?" I am proud of myself when I march for choice or counsel a woman through a difficult decision, and then wonder why I can't say the word abortion during a dinner party. I struggle to talk to the media and elected officials in ways that are on-message and yet embrace the complexity of women's lives and the nuanced positions on abortion that exist outside of sound bytes and talking points.

Thank goodness for the Abortion Conversation Project. Since 2005, ACP has hosted Regional Conversations across the country that have brought together activists, providers, clergy, students, educators, midwives, adoption professionals, and other pro-choice individuals to explore values, address challenges, and build alliances that will work to reduce stigma around abortion at the local and national level.

The most recent conversation took place on May 20th in Portland, Oregon, and the forty-plus participants spent the day engaged in a rich dialogue about the deepest and most complex elements of abortion and reproductive justice. We asked questions like:

When does life begin?

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How can I talk about motherhood and abortion as part of the same issue?

What do I do when my 10-year-old godson asks me what ‘abortion' means?

How do I talk about the wide range of feelings women may have after an abortion?

I never know what to say when anti-abortion opponents talk about religion.

Can I still be pro-choice if some aspects of abortion make me uncomfortable?

Those of us who work in this movement and who advocate for reproductive justice are often so busy fighting endless legislative battles and taking care of the many women that need our help that we rarely stop to make time to explore questions such as those above. The Northwest Abortion Conversation (NWAC) offered the opportunity for those from diverse areas of the movement, as well as those with many years experience and those who were very new to the work, the chance to ask questions of one another and practice new ways of talking about abortion with patients, friends and family, and the constituents we are all trying to reach. The morning was spent learning from each another (What is a ‘doula'? What's it like to work inside an abortion clinic? Do legislators really listen when I write or call them?) and exploring some hard questions surrounding our work (What is our movement doing to support women who WANT to have children? How do you feel when women who claim to be ‘pro-life' come to you for an abortion? What role can men play in this movement?).

Following a lunchtime plenary by ACP Board Member Krista Jacob, whose recently released anthology Abortion Under Attack: Women on the Challenges Facing Choice includes essays addressing many of these topics, we spent the afternoon talking about our unique niches in the movement, breaking into groups of interest chosen by the NWAC participants. These groups included birth choices, language and messaging, activists and advocates, abortion providers, counselors, and direct service providers. Among those who identified with each group, the discussion focused on the strengths they offered the reproductive justice movement, the issues of highest priority, and the one thing they felt was most important for others in the room to know about them. The frankness with which each group presented their strengths and challenges, as well as their dreams and frustrations for their work, was educational and inspiring, and allowed everyone present to delve into the chasms and bridges that exist in our movement and the amazing opportunities we have to help one another move forward.

The stigma surrounding abortion cannot be overcome in a day, but a strong dialogue has begun. With opposition that is stronger than ever directly affecting politics, healthcare, and the lives of women, there has never been a better time to look closely at our messages and our language, and to collaborate with our allies in a grassroots movement toward change. It all starts with conversation.

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