OAKLAND, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–Whether a woman is pro-choice or pro-life, Aspen Baker feels that all should be “pro-voice” when it comes to talking about having an abortion and the emotions that follow.
Others apparently agree.
This month, Exhale, the peer counseling hotline she co-founded for women who have had abortions and their partners seeking emotional support is going nationwide.
Exhale has been operating in the San Francisco Bay Area since January 2002. Starting this month, Exhale is lifting a block on its phone lines from all incoming calls outside the region and will field calls from across the U.S. The group has also extended its hours, trained additional peer counselors and made the service available in Spanish, Vietnamese and Cantonese.
In a 2002 story, Baker told Women’s eNews that she had no plans to go national and that she hoped to instead train groups in other parts of the country to adopt the Exhale model in post-abortion counseling. But she changed her mind when she realized that the replication idea wasn’t catching fast enough and she started thinking about women in rural California who come to San Francisco for an abortion and then go home and can’t access Exhale. She noted that another group in New York City that planned to launch a similar service called Epilogue hasn’t gotten the project off the ground.
“Because we’re the only ones in the country we felt we had a strong obligation to open it up,” Baker said.
Creating a Safe Environment
Exhale has purposefully stayed out of political discussions around abortion. Baker won’t comment on parental consent laws or other restrictions being placed on abortion access nationwide. Exhale hasn’t been a target of anti-abortion protesters and Baker said she hopes to keep it that way by reminding people the reason for the service: to create a safe environment for women to talk about their feelings about a very personal experience.
Three years after it launched, Oakland-based Exhale runs on a $250,000 annual budget in foundation grants and in-kind donations. Modeled on rape-crisis hotlines, Exhale’s 25 volunteer peer counselors attend 40 hours of training in the history of abortion, sexuality, rape, religion and suicide.
Exhale is attracting attention from health clinics, abortion providers and others that want to incorporate after-abortion peer counseling into their services. Baker and program director Carolina De Robertis have held trainings around the country to help groups that come in contact with women who have had abortions to discuss the procedure in a non-judgmental way.
“There’s this myth that everyone is traumatized after an abortion; there’s a myth everyone is relieved,” says Baker. “There’s all these boxes everyone is expected to fit into.”
The talk-line received more than 700 calls in 2004. Repeat callers comprised 11 percent and 9 percent were men. Nearly 40 percent of callers had undergone an abortion in the past month but some had abortions years earlier. Exhale referred 35 percent to other services.
“We see ourselves as one piece in a network of support,” Baker said. “It’s about making links to the system.”
Exhale is toll-free at 1-866-4-EXHALE. The talk-line operates nationwide Monday through Friday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. PST and weekends from noon until 10 p.m. PST.
Other Services, Other Perspectives
Post-abortion counseling is provided by other groups, but most are tied to a religious or moral perspective. Project Rachel, founded in 1984 by the Roman Catholic Church diocese, counsels women who have had abortions over several months of self-forgiveness and reconciliation with the church.
Exhale’s philosophy is unique and based on two fundamentals: abortion is legal and abortion is normal.
Some women who call Exhale are deeply religious and are seeking help with feelings of relief, not regret. Other women call seeking help with domestic violence after an abortion, or looking for food bank services because they spend their monthly paycheck on an abortion, Baker says.
Planned Parenthood clinics refer women to Exhale, but Kathy Kneer, executive director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, says she thinks the need is small.
“Most women think long and hard before they have an abortion and they come to the decision by themselves and feel comfortable with that decision,” Kneer says. She commends Exhale as a good service and says she “wishes them well.”
Exhale grew out of the founders’ personal experience.
When Baker was 23, she had an abortion and was surprised at the lack of emotional support for women after terminating a pregnancy. So she and four other women founded a free post-abortion talk-line for the San Francisco Bay Area in January 2002 with seed money of $500.
“Some women identify (themselves) as pro-life or pro-choice or don’t identify with either,” says Baker, now 29.”It’s crucial that we remain supportive of everyone. And we value that for many women abortion can be part of a normal and productive life.”
For Monica Lois, 27, Exhale normalized her feelings about her abortion. Lois had an abortion at age 25 after deciding with her long-term boyfriend that it was the right option at the time. Always pro-choice, Lois has no regret over her decision. But months after terminating her pregnancy, she had intense feelings of grief and was crying a lot.
“My body just knew (that it was the due date),” Lois says.
Like Baker, Lois said she felt angry with the pro-choice movement for not providing more after-abortion resources. She found Exhale online through a Web search and was grateful she lived in the Bay Area so could access the line. She spent about 15 minutes on the call and felt better afterwards, she says.
“The best thing about it was hearing that my experience was normal,” she says. “I felt like, wow, someone knows what’s going on with me.”
By the age of 45, 1 in 3 U.S. women will have an abortion. Whatever a woman is feeling about that experience, it is important to normalize it and allow the woman to talk about it if they want to, Baker says.
Rebecca Vesely writes about health care from the San Francisco Bay Area.
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