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Week of 7.20.07

Aspen Baker of Exhale, a "Pro-Voice" Group

Aspen Baker Aspen Baker is a founder and head of Exhale, a non profit group that provides phone counseling to women who have had abortions. Exhale defines itself as apolitical and claims to not take sides on the controversial issue. To illustrate this, they choose the label "pro-voice." Their phone line is staffed by volunteers who are trained to offer nonjudgmental peer counseling - to men as well as women—as well as information and referrals in five languages, according to Baker. Exhale's national after-abortion talk line has been nationally available since June 2005 and receives about 400 calls a month.

NOW: Why did you set up Exhale when there were already a wide variety of abortion counseling services and hotlines available in the country?

Aspen Baker (AB): After my own abortion in 1999, I looked for post-abortion counseling services. While I felt, and still feel, that the abortion was the best decision I could make at the time, I wanted the chance to talk through all my thoughts and feelings about it, and get support. The only post-abortion counseling agencies I found were Christian-religion based and they had a very one-size-fits-all approach. Specifically, their counseling demanded that I acknowledge the abortion as a mistake, seek forgiveness from God and participate in activities to end legal abortion.

This wasn't the kind of emotional support I wanted. I decided to start Exhale because I wanted to offer women and men what I was unable to find—a truly non-judgmental place to talk about personal experiences with abortion and get emotional support, without the baggage of political or moral agendas.

NOW: What kind of responses do you typically get from women when they call the hotline?

AB: The overwhelming need that Exhale addresses on our talkline is the need for women to be heard and listened to by someone who doesn't judge or criticize them. The vast majority of our callers feel like their abortion is a taboo subject and off-limits as a conversation topic with their typical networks of support, such as friends, family, or clergy. Often, the Exhale volunteer counselor is the first person a woman has told about her abortion. Many callers have told our counselors how much they appreciate calling because the support they receive helps them feel less isolated and alone.

Through our anonymous, online feedback form we are able to hear directly from talkline callers about how much they appreciate the service, what they found helpful and their suggestions for how to make our service stronger. Beyond the direct need to "get their story of their chests," so to speak, there is a range of feelings, experiences and needs people have after an abortion. This is expected. One in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. The majority of women that have abortions are mothers, religious and women of color. This means that abortion is incredibly common for women from a wide variety of backgrounds, economic situations, belief systems, values and family structures.

Just as each person is unique, so too is their response to an abortion. From feelings of self-confidence, pride and relief that result from doing their best to take care of themselves and their families to feelings of sadness, loss, or grief for their situation or the baby—Exhale believes each woman deserves the chance to get emotional support.

NOW: What kind of training do you provide to your volunteer counselors?

AB: The Exhale "talkline" is staffed by trained volunteer peer counselors. They are actively recruited from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and carefully screened before accepted into our 48-hour training program. They are evaluated throughout the training and completion of the training is not a guarantee that someone will serve on the talkline. Volunteer counselors receive ongoing supervision and continuing education throughout their service on the talkline.

The training covers a wide range of strategies, topics and issue areas. Most importantly, counselors are trained on our "pro-voice" approach to offering emotional support, which requires counselors set aside personal values or opinions in order to really hear and address the needs of a talkline caller. We also practice our counseling methods extensively through role-playing. Specific topics covered in the training include: socio-cultural context of abortion, transforming oppression (how issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc... can affect each person's experience with abortion), personal experience panel: faith and culture, personal experience panel: men and significant others, field trip to an abortion clinic, domestic violence, sexual assault, suicide/depression, multi-lingual communication, counselor self-care, and referrals.

NOW: How has the pro-life movement responded to your service? And the pro-choice movement?

AB: When we initially founded Exhale, we looked at the landscape of abortion services and the abortion debate and saw many organizations debating abortion at the political level, we saw abortion providers that did not universally or systematically offer post-abortion counseling services and we saw Christian-based services that provided post-abortion counseling, typically with an anti-abortion agenda.

We decided to focus our work on women who have already had abortions and offer them a safe, non-judgmental place where they could find support and respect for their unique experiences.

Since our founding in 2000, Exhale has learned that there are many communities that make up both the pro-life and the pro-choice movements. This means that we have had supporters and critics from both movements. Typically, we have found there to be a real difference between those that work in direct care with women and their families from those that operate mostly at a political level. From those that work directly with women, we have found that across the political spectrum, there is agreement that women who have abortions should have access to support and that more access to support is better than less. Clearly, there are differences of opinion on how to provide it and who should do it. From the political perspective, the fact that Exhale does not engage in political activities to either promote or end legal abortion is frustrating to many in the pro-life and pro-choice movements. We have been called misguided by both sides.

NOW: What, if anything, do you think is missing from the debate on abortion?

AB: Dialogue. We are stuck in debate, which requires a winner and a loser. Right now, women who have had abortions are losing. The political debate has increased abortion stigma and silenced the experiences of the women who have them. Exhale is bringing the diverse and unique experiences that women and men have with abortion into the national conversation. Our goal is to break the social stigma that keeps their experiences silenced so that women who have abortions, and their loved ones, can experience support and respect, instead of judgment and isolation.

NOW: Where do you get funding for the hotline? Is this from either the pro-choice or pro-life movement?

AB: The majority of Exhale's funding comes from California-based foundations that promote community health and wellness strategies. We get some funding from foundations that promote women's and reproductive health. A significant amount of our funding comes from individual donors, people that send us $10, $25, or $100 to support our mission, and we earn some income by training health services on how to provide non-judgmental post-abortion counseling. Beyond our own talkline service, we are working to increase access to post-abortion support through the United States and beyond.