On some special Wednesdays, The CSPH features a sexuality professional who is rockin’ the field. This week, we’ve decided to feature an organization that is doing great work to change the conversations and culture around abortion stigma. Exhale is a non-profit dedicated to providing emotional support to those who have had abortions and to their loved ones. Their work is totally hero-worthy, and we think that they deserve some love.
The CSPH: Tell us about Exhale’s origins. when did you start, and why?
Exhale: Exhale began in 2000 with 5 women who wanted to make space for people to share their feelings about their abortion experiences and be heard — without judgment or politics. They started the after-abortion support talkline for people to share their unvarnished truths over the phone, with trained volunteer
counselors who wouldn’t ask them to pick a side. At the time, it was the only service of its kind, and it wasn’t initially welcomed by groups on either side of the polarized political debate, who typically painted feelings around abortion as one-dimensional: people who got abortions either felt relief or regret.
We knew from our callers and our community that lived experience wasn’t so black and white, and that emotions around abortion can be complex. Fifteen years later, more organizations understand how we need a nuanced conversation that both acknowledges the broad range of emotions people can feel around an abortion, and recognizes people who experience it personally for their expertise and leadership.
The CSPH: What kind of services do you offer? Where do you offer them?
Exhale: Exhale runs a national toll-free support talkline at 1-866-4-EXHALE. We’re open Monday through Friday 5-10pm PT and Saturday and Sunday 12-10pm PT. Our 40 current volunteer counselors are based in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, where they undergo 60 hours of training before their year-long commitment on the talkline, and they take calls from people in all 50 states from their homes. We offer counseling in 5 languages: English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Tagalog.
In 2013, we hit the road with 5 women who shared their personal abortion experiences with strangers in classrooms, churches and community centers around the country. Next year, we’ll be recruiting and training a new class of storytellers and going on tour again as part of a new annual fellowship. We’ll encourage face-to-face dialogue through workshops outside the polarizing debate of the campaign trail, and help bridge connections between people who otherwise might find themselves on opposing ends of the political divide.
Exhale also provides ethical storysharing guides for people who want to share their abortion stories and organizations who work with storytellers. We host an online forum where people share their abortion stories, and we help develop the leadership of people who have abortions through our fellowship and storysharing tour.
The CSPH: Why are Exhale’s services important?
Exhale: 1 in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime, but it’s still considered taboo to discuss abortion outside abstract political slogans in real-life, personal conversations. Exhale’s support talkline empowers callers to find their own path to emotional health and wellbeing, and help break down the stigma and battlefield mentality that prevents others from speaking out and connecting with other people who might share their experience.
“After 45 years of not talking at all to anyone, I used Exhale’s phone counseling and spoke about my abortions. I am now able to tell my story out loud, one carefully chosen person at a time. Each time I tell my story it is with fewer tears.
Thanks for giving me the courage and encouragement to use my voice to start to heal.”
–JoAnn, talkline caller
The CSPH: What makes your services unique?
Exhale: Exhale is the very-first pro-voice organization. Pro-voice is a practice of nonjudgmental listening and storysharing, and it’s a philosophy that affirms the full range of emotional experiences someone can feel after an abortion — from the feminist who regrets her abortion to the Catholic who is grateful for hers, and anything in-between and beyond. We’ve built a caring space for people to connect and lead in the midst of one of the most heated political battles of our time, and we’re growing a pro-voice movement to transform stigma and conflict to conversation.
“I grew up in a pro-choice family in a pro-life community, and pro-choice values were important to me when I was in school. When I graduated from college, I started working in an abortion clinic, and the abstract political ideals I held suddenly didn’t quite fit the reality of
working with people every day and hearing about their lives and experiences.
It felt like there was something missing, and I didn’t know what that was.
When I found Exhale, I realized pro-voice was that missing piece for me. In my experience working in a clinic environment, there wasn’t the same focus on emotional health and well-being and creating space to share experiences. Through volunteering on the talkline, playing different roles in the organization, and now training other counselors and overseeing the talkline, I’ve witnessed first-hand the transformational power of nonjudgmental listening and storysharing, and how impactful it is for individuals and whole communities of people.”
-Danielle Thomas, Senior Manager, National Program
The CSPH: Have you seen a change in how people seek-out your services given the current political climate surrounding abortion?
Exhale: We have not seen a large difference in how many people call Exhale, but our counselors have heard more callers talk about how the Planned Parenthood fetal tissue controversy and the surrounding political maelstrom has brought up some feelings for them. Especially in areas where there are battles
over access — for example in Texas with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision — that can make people want to pick up the phone and talk about what’s going on in their home state and in their communities. When the political conversation looms large, it can add to the taboo and make it especially difficult for people who’ve experienced abortion personally to discuss their feelings with those around them.
The CSPH: How do shame and stigma affect the people who seek your services?
Exhale: Shame and stigma can hide personal stories and prevent people from reaching out and connecting with one another. 37% of people who call the talkline are calling to discuss how to talk about their abortion with family and friends. It’s not uncommon to hear from callers that they don’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about their abortion with the people closest to them. That says a lot about broader perceptions of people who have abortions, that we have this fear of judgment and of sacrificing important relationships if we share with the people we love.
When people call the talkline, they’re role-modeling strong self-care. They’re recognizing a need for support outside their daily lives, reaching out, and taking the initiative to get their needs met. Being able to pick up the phone is a big step, and overcoming some of that stigma to talk to a stranger about
your abortion shows a lot of courage and leadership. The idea that this is something we’re sometimes more comfortable talking about with a stranger than the people we care about most underscores how shame and stigma can separate us from one another.
The CSPH: It’s your 15th birthday! Where do you want to be when you’re 20?
Exhale: Exhale’s long-term goal is a cultural shift around abortion, and that shift takes time. It starts at an individual level, around kitchen tables and in intimate conversations that often happen outside the political realm. Politics is important, but it can’t be the only way we talk about abortion in this country.
We want to see conversations about abortion open up and become more pro-voice — recognizing abortion as a complex human experience that exists on an emotional spectrum. And we want to see people who’ve had abortions leading that conversation publicly.
We’ve also seen pro-voice have the power to start new conversations about abortion and transform shame and stigma to support and respect, and we know that this power extends beyond abortion to other marginalized experiences — from sexuality and mental health, to poverty and incarceration. We’re excited to see leaders in other realms make pro-voice their own.