When I first started working here at the clinic, I remember wondering what I would tell people when asked the question, “what do you do?” I had never had any concerns about disclosing where I worked before. Even when I was doing public policy work around reproductive health issues, it never crossed my mind not to discuss the kind of work that I did.
For the first few months that I worked at the clinic though, I had a hard time just coming out and saying, “I’m an abortion provider” or “I’m a counselor at an abortion clinic.” Not because I was ashamed of what I do, on the contrary, I’m quite proud to work in this field, but because I was afraid of the response that I might get from the person that I was talking to. I’m not one to seek out confrontation and I was truly afraid that by telling someone what I do, that I could cause, if not a fist fight, at least a really uncomfortable political conversation.
At the time I justified this avoidance by saying to myself, “I talk about abortion all the time at work, why would I want to talk about it on my time off.” But if I really thought about it I could admit to myself that I was just scared. After a few months of telling people, “I’m in women’s health care,” I started thinking about my patients and about how most women are so hesitant to tell people in their lives that they have had an abortion. And I started thinking about how if all the women and men in this country who have been touched by an abortion experience in some way or another could find the courage to talk about their experiences, then maybe some of the shame and stigma and fear surrounding abortion would start to go away. When you consider that approximately 1/3 of the women in this country will have an abortion at some time in their lives, that 60% of the women in this country are already mothers when they have an abortion, that abortion is one of the safest and most common surgical procedures performed in the U.S., it seems ridiculous that anyone would be ashamed or nervous about talking about it.
But here we are, in a society that seems unwilling or unable to talk about this common experience except in terms of the political “abortion wars” that we’re all used to seeing around election time on the news. Unfortunately, this type of black and white arguing about abortion–perhaps one of the most complex issues we face in our lives–is a huge contributing factor to the hostile environment that women and providers face. We live in a world where if you can’t distill your rationale into a thirty second sound bite, your argument can’t be heard. And these big issues of pregnancy and abortion, which have everything to do with life, death, sex, faith and a myriad of other complex, personal issues, can’t be broken down into tiny little sound bites.
Finally, after a few months, I mustered up some courage and starting telling people, “I’m an abortion provider.” And so far, five years later, no one has spit on me or punched me and I’ve had hundreds of interesting and enlightening conversations about abortion. Since I’ve started talking about my work, I’ve discovered that many of the women in my life have made the decision to have an abortion at some time in their in their lives. I’ve talked to cab drivers about their wives and daughters, to car mechanics about their faith, to a manicurist about her abortion decision as a teen and how it affected her decision to have a child later in life. Not everyone that I talk to identifies themselves as pro-choice. And sometimes, these conversations can be pretty tough–but nine times out of ten, they are incredibly rewarding. Even when the person I am talking to doesn’t see eye to eye with me, by having a conversation I’m helping to create a more open environment where people feel safe talking about a tough topic.
Talking about abortion never fails to remind me that pregnancy doesn’t discriminate. It’s something that affects every woman at some point in her life and has a ripple effect that touches every part of her life and many of the people involved in her life.
So my call and challenge to all of you out there, is to be brave and be willing to talk about abortion. Not to fight. Not to try to change people’s minds. Just be willing to have a conversation about these complex issues and maybe create an environment where we can all talk about those touchy, hard issues that we like to avoid.
I am Dr. Tiller.