When Aspen Baker had an abortion at the age of twenty-four, she felt caught between the warring pro-life and pro-choice factions, with no safe space to share her feelings.
In this hopeful and moving book, Baker describes how she and Exhale, the organization she cofounded, developed their “pro-voice” philosophy and the creative approaches they employed to help women and men have respectful, compassionate exchanges about even this most controversial of topics. She shows how pro-voice can be adopted by anyone interested in replacing ideological gridlock with empathetic conversation. Peace, in this perspective, isn’t a world without conflict but one where conflict can be engaged in—fiercely and directly—without dehumanizing ourselves or our opponents.
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How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight
By Aspen Baker
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2015 Aspen Baker
All rights reserved.
The Birth of Pro-Voice
I grew up in the middle of our nation's wars over abortion.
In 1976, the year I was born, the first clinic bombing was reported. The 1980s, my formative childhood years, were dominated by the impact of aggressive pro-life protests. California, my home state, had one of the most successful anti-abortion campaigning organizations around: more than 40,000 pro-life activists were arrested while protesting abortion clinics during a four-year period in the '80s.
As I was growing up in Southern California, it wasn't unusual for me to see a huge picture of a bloody, dismembered fetus on a massive sign attached to the side of a minivan driving up and down the freeways near my home. I was certainly affected by pro-life public-awareness efforts but unaware of the violence against clinics. I grew up without a TV, so if these events were covered on the news, I never saw them.
As regular attendees of what I like to call a "surfing Christian" church and school, both nondenominational, my family and I spent time with other church and school families on the beaches of my hometown. San Clemente is steeped in surfing culture: it's the home of Surfing Magazine; surf legends such as the Paskowitz, Fletcher, Beschen, and Gudauskas families; iconic surf brands such as Rainbow Sandals and Astrodeck; the nonprofit ocean conservation organization the Surfrider Foundation. To top it all off, our "Spanish Village by the Sea" was made famous by Richard Nixon during his presidency as the location of his "western White House." Everyone, including many of the moms and all the kids, surfed, and in our circle, a special occasion meant it was time to pull out a nice Hawaiian shirt or sundress and wear the good flip-flops. Only the preacher wore a suit. Everyone was pro-life, and we all mourned the tragedy of abortion, but no one ever invited me to a protest, and as far as I knew, no one in our community participated in one, either—violent or not.
But we did put our pro-life Christian views into practice. Ever since I was young, my family and I traveled with church groups to Tijuana on missionary trips where I never saw anyone preach or try to convert others. We were there to chip in and help local orphanages survive. The dads worked on building clean bathrooms, and the moms spent all day in the kitchen making food. My younger sister and I spent the day hanging out with the babies. As a young girl, I found it hard to hear that the baby sitting on my lap—the one resigned to the flies in her eyes, nose, and mouth, despite my constant attempts to shoo them away—had been found by one of the adults at the local trash dump, where they went early each morning to look for abandoned babies. I loved babies. In fact, I spent less time with my own peers in Sunday school class than in the nursery, caring for the infants during church services.
Outside of these trips to Tijuana, it wasn't unusual for my dad to bring home a stranger he had just met who needed a place to crash for the night, or for my family to spend Thanksgiving at a local soup kitchen. We lived pretty close to the bone ourselves. My parents basically made minimum wage in the 1980s, and I never earned an allowance. I started making my own money at 10 years old with—you guessed it—babysitting gigs, and the money I started to save then helped me pay for college later. But that wasn't my only job. I also had a paper route at 10, the first girl to get the job from the local boys. Even though I read the paper every day before making my rounds, I don't remember tracking the abortion fights.
Our community was white, working class, and not well educated—the dads I knew were plumbers, contractors, and teachers, and most of the moms worked as assistants and receptionists in local doctors' offices or were teachers too. When I was young, my dad had every kind of odd job—beekeeper, chimney sweep—and my mom worked as a cocktail waitress. My dad would often take my little sister and me to have hot cocoa at the bar when my mom was working late into the night. Later on, both of my parents got better jobs working for the wealthy—my dad as a private pilot for company CEOs and my mom as a housecleaner. Homeschooled for a few years, I often did my work at the kitchen tables of families whose homes were several times the size of our own while my mom scrubbed their houses clean.
We all cared about God, the less fortunate, and the ocean. I don't remember a single political conversation, but I do know that I was raised with a charitable bent in our pro-life views, not a violent, judgmental one. As a kid, I remember a couple of teenage girls who got pregnant and had babies at a young age, and I promised myself that it would never happen to me. It was hard to believe that I could ever be in that position, getting pregnant when I didn't want to be. If the unlikely ever happened, I always assumed I'd have the baby.
I knew I could never kill my baby if I got pregnant. And then I did.
* * *
I had come a long way since my childhood on the beaches of San Clemente. I'd followed in the family footsteps set out by my grandfather, my uncle, and my dad, who had all worked as professional pilots, and started taking flying lessons while still in high school. I was learning how to land a single-engine Cessna airplane at small airports throughout San Diego while I got to know the Alaskan bush-pilot character of Maggie O'Connell on Northern Exposure along with the rest of America. After graduation, I quickly made my way to Alaska, where I learned how to land a plane on rivers, lakes, and glaciers, among having other adventures.
They say that women headed to Alaska alone are either running to or running from a man, and upon arrival they find that the "odds may be good" for finding a husband but the "goods are odd." The Fairview Inn in Talkeetna, where I lived for a summer working for a local bush-flying outfit, had photo albums full of local men looking for a female mate. Their main requirements for a potential partner were that the woman be "quiet" and be able to "skin a moose." Beyond its breathtaking beauty, the quirky honesty of Alaska was one of the things I loved the most.
There's a lot of freedom in such a big place, and with it comes the harsh realities of inhabiting a rugged, wild land. Getting charged by a mama grizzly bear on a deserted trail once was enough for me. So too was knowing that not all of the courageous, passionate mountaineers I met would come back from their adventures alive. When I was 20 years old, I hauled the body bag of an older East German man off a small plane and had to organize how to get his remains and belongings home. Before he headed into the mountains, I'd spent hours with him and his climbing partner, who talked about how they dreamed of climbing Denali while confined by communism behind the Berlin Wall. The man's dream ended tragically in an avalanche, and yet he inspired me to always pursue my own.
After Alaska and a brief stop living at home, attending community college in Orange County, I got accepted into UC Berkeley. I paid my way through school, selling everything from lattes and cocktails to bikes and skis at the local REI while earning my degree in peace and conflict studies. A voracious reader who had spent hours at the local library from a young age, I discovered and was politically transformed by The Autobiography of Malcolm X at age 15. By reading his story, I learned how to connect the dots between the hardships I saw in Tijuana or at the local soup kitchen and a broader social system of inequality and discrimination. I sought a college education that would teach me how to right the wrongs of injustice. I imagined that after graduation, I'd travel the globe on peaceful, humanitarian missions to serve those hurt in conflict zones and uplift those silenced by political repression.
Then everything changed—sort of. Three months after graduating college and three months into a new relationship, I found out that I was pregnant.
I thought I'd have the baby, until I told the guy. He wanted me to get an abortion. It forced me to take the option seriously in a way I never had before. It was hard to come up with a picture of what an abortion would mean in my life. I could see the dismembered fetus on the side of the minivans from my childhood, yet I had no corresponding image of a woman who'd had one. No one had ever told me she'd had an abortion. I could only remember one rumor years before about a girl from high school whom I hadn't known well, but everyone else I knew had had their babies. I had no idea how to make the decision. What criteria should I use? How would I know what the right decision was? Would I regret an abortion later?
It was during this time that I took the risk to confide in my friend Polly while we were closing up the downtown Berkeley bar where we both worked. When she told me about her own abortion, Polly gave me an unusual gift: the knowledge that I was not alone in my experience. Whatever I decided, someone I knew had been through this, too.
It was the strangest feeling to walk around pregnant, not wanting to be, knowing that I had this big secret and that no one could tell just by looking at me. I found myself more curious about other people's private lives. What secrets were people holding that I couldn't see? What major life decisions were they facing? Whom could they talk to?
The old adage about walking a mile in someone else's shoes came alive. I promised myself that I would never judge anyone again. I hadn't lived their life. I didn't know what they knew, fear what they feared, hope what they hoped. I knew that we all needed the same thing: not to be rescued or saved from the pain and difficulty of our circumstances and choices, but to feel cared for and supported as we fought our own battles.
In the end, having the abortion was not so much about staying on some kind of life track or "getting back to normal" as it was about my need to sever all ties I had with the guy. It was a step toward the unknown. The abortion forced me to let go of the future I had spent several days imagining after I found out that I was pregnant. I wasn't going to be a mom this time. I said goodbye to all the ideas, strategies, plans, and hopes I'd come up with as I tried to make having a baby work out somehow in my life. There is no do-over with abortion. I could never take it back. I knew it would always hold a place in my life's story, and with just a few days to make such a life-altering decision, I had no way to know if it was the best one for me.
I didn't know who I would be after an abortion.
While I had been aware of the abortion debate before my abortion, I didn't give it much attention. After my abortion, I listened more carefully, but all I heard was yelling and screaming. Noise. Anger. Outrage. It seemed to come from all sides. I couldn't distinguish one side's voice from the other. It was toxic and polarizing and full of judgment, finger-pointing, and blame. I felt grateful for my legal, covered-by-health-insurance abortion—absolutely—and yet once it was over, I was pretty mixed up about it.
I didn't hear a voice like mine in the debate.
I searched for support, people and places to go talk to about my abortion. Even in Berkeley, California, all I found were Christian, pro-life organizations that wanted me to seek forgiveness from God. That wasn't what I needed. The pro-choice side had nothing to offer. If the pro-life side considered abortion one of life's biggest sins, then the pro-choice side seemed to consider it no big deal, an experience not worth talking about. I eventually found my way to a private therapist whom I paid in the cash I earned from my bartending tips. Ever since I'd known what an abortion was, I told myself I'd never have one, and then I did. I didn't know if my abortion was aligned with my values or an aberration, inconsistent with who I was. My life wasn't so black and white anymore. It had gotten very, very gray.
I now knew that I wasn't alone, but I didn't understand why people weren't talking about their own abortions. I wondered how things would change if we did.
I no longer needed to travel the globe to support and uplift those hurt by conflict and repression. America's abortion wars were in desperate need of their own humanitarian, peaceful mission, and I was determined to respond to the crisis.
In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, "I suggest that the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence become immediately a subject for study and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict."
After my abortion, I took up Dr. King's challenge. I wanted to put my peaceful values into action and experiment with nonviolence on the issue that had unexpectedly landed at my front door. I now had a personal stake in the abortion debate, but I didn't want to fight to win. I wanted to transform the war into peace.
Since 2000, I have devoted my life to this experiment.
I cofounded Exhale to put nonviolent theories and ideas into real-life practice. Our programs and messages infuse love, compassion, and connection into the polarizing debate, diffusing tensions, increasing understanding, and promoting wellbeing. Listening and storytelling are the primary tools of our trade. The gray area is our landscape. We coined "pro-voice" in 2005 to inspire others to join our growing movement of peacemakers.
Months after my abortion, as I was researching abortion on the way to founding Exhale, I walked into a local Berkeley bookstore in search of a self-help book for women who'd had abortions. I was hoping to find something that could provide detailed information about all aspects of the procedure—from the medical and physical elements to the emotional ones—with voices of women sharing their stories and advice, including the ways they felt about the loss of their fetus. I found nothing like it on the shelves, so I went to the clerk to ask for help.
When I told her my request, she looked nervously at me, turned red, got flustered, and blurted out, "But abortion is a choice!" She may have repeated it a few times.
"True," I said, "and I was hoping to find a book about women's experiences."
"All abortion books are under politics," she said before walking away quickly.
I looked under politics, and sure enough, there were a few books about abortion there, but nothing was written for a woman who'd had one or was thinking about having one. Abortion was considered a political, private choice, but rarely was it addressed in personal terms. The clerk at the Berkeley bookstore wasn't the only one to think of abortion so narrowly.
As much as I liked and appreciated the doctor who did my abortion, he gave me the same message. He made it a point to say that I'd never have to tell another person about it. He informed me that no doctor would be able to tell that I'd ever had one. From the very beginning, the message was that my abortion was private, a secret, not something to be shared with others, even my other doctors.
Later, a fertility specialist told me at a conference how much this sentiment had hurt his practice, because women later in life who were trying to get pregnant would hide their past abortions out of shame. But, he told me, a past pregnancy is one of the best indicators of someone's future ability to get pregnant. A patient's hiding of such critical information made it difficult for the doctor to understand his patient's whole history, and it prevented him from offering real, medically proven hope to the woman and her partner.
We at Exhale weren't alone in our desire to forge a new way forward on the abortion debate. The year we adopted "pro-voice," Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (now called Forward Together) published their vision for a broad-based reproductive justice movement led by women of color, and pro-choice leader Frances Kissling published her seminal piece "Is There Life After Roe?" on the importance of valuing the fetus alongside women's rights. Anna Quindlen wrote in Newsweek that in all her years as an opinion columnist, the debate over abortion had hardly changed, noting, "Leaders of the opposing sides have been frozen into polar positions." Quindlen acknowledged that abortion doesn't fit "neatly into black-and-white boxes, it takes place in that messy gray zone of hard choices," writing that "we insult ourselves by leaving its complexities unexamined."
During his 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame, President Obama put out a call for more civility, asking opposing sides to at least try to "discover the possibility of finding common ground" and help "transform the culture war into a tradition of cooperation and understanding." But when the next abortion battle was waged a year later, this time over the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which would limit abortion funding in the Affordable Care Act, the common-ground rhetoric was quickly abandoned in favor of the usual polarizing talking points.
There is a better way to do this, but the conflict is so effective at sweeping the nation into its vicious cycles that resistance to its power is short-lived.
Excerpted from Pro-Voice by Aspen Baker. Copyright © 2015 Aspen Baker. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsPreface
Chapter 1: The Birth of Pro-Voice
Chapter 2: America’s Abortion Conflict
Chapter 3: Listen and Tell Stories
Chapter 4: Embrace Gray Areas
Chapter 5: Shape What’s Next
About the Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What a fantastic book! An important read for anyone involved in the abortion debate, or any conflict, for that matter. Aspen Baker eloquently describes the concept of pro-voice and how listening and ethical story sharing are the solutions to many of the political issues we face today. Imagine if we all approached debates by actually listening and with empathy instead of contempt and judgement? Well, Aspen Baker and Exhale working hard to make that a reality. This book makes me believe in the power of peace and the good in the world. I highly recommend reading this if you're in need of some good vibes and want to know how to share pro-voice in your life.
"I knew I could never kill my baby if I got pregnant. And then I did." This book is an incredibly powerful, yet disarmingly gentle window into what is largely missing from the abortion conversation: the impact on those who have experienced it. Aspen Baker emerges as a dynamic leader in this country's debate, both as a woman with lived experience with abortion and as a leader committed to affecting change through telling, listening to, and honoring stories. This book not only recognizes, but bravely wades in, the gray area of the abortion conversation. It recognizes that there are various ways of thinking and of being, and that there is a wide spectrum of belief and experience with abortion. Pro-Voice--both the book and the philosophy-- honors the conflict, regret, pain, loss, freedom and joy--that a person might feel as a cause or consequence of an abortion. It transforms the abortion conversation from a theoretical perspective into an opportunity for healing and connection. Pro-Voice is a quick read that left me full: of gratitude, of peace, and of questions. The idea that there is space for everyone in this conversation felt both true and revolutionary to me, and inspired me to figure out new ways to create space for both women and men to talk of such tender things.