Today I received an email from an acquaintance. She is pregnant and wants an abortion. She wrote in a tone I recognized from checking the clinic emails – the situation outlined clearly and stripped of emotion, as though she had gone through several drafts, and then at last simply stated her feelings matter-of-factly and almost as an afterthought: “I’m scared”.
This isn’t the first email of this type that I have received. I am certain it won’t be the last. Even as I wrote my reply, reassuring her that she is not alone and outlining her options, I began wondering why it is that young women turn to me first in these situations. Certainly I am an obvious choice because I work in an abortion clinic, and I am vocal about it. They can be sure I will be non-judgemental. But they could always call the clinic and get the same reply. Information is not the only thing these women are seeking: they need to be comforted, supported, understood. They turn to me partially for advice, and partially for friendship. Why isn’t that support present in their lives?
My friends make fun of me because I take an interest in their sexual health. I make no bones about the fact that I always have condoms, and will happily give them to anyone who asks. It frustrates me that I am the only person I know who does this. Why aren’t we looking out for each other? If I have a headache, I can ask a friend if they have any Tylenol. Sexual health is health, and we are not doing each other a favour by staying silent.
The main reason I am outspoken with my peers about safe sex is because I want them to know that they can turn to me for support – for a condom, for vibrator-shopping advice, for a hand to hold at a doctor’s appointment, for information, for support. If I don’t put myself out there, people will not ask. We know so little about our friends that when things are tough, we are afraid to turn to them for fear of judgement.
This is part of the way that abortion is stigmatized, but I believe that it also comes from the taboo nature of women’s sexuality in our society. So many women are suffering in silence: I see them coming to my clinic alone (and you can always tell the difference between the ones who want to be there alone and the ones who wish there was someone with them). I get their emails. And I wonder: where are your friends? How frightening is it to feel that there is nowhere you can turn for support?
I know that it can be difficult, even for those of us who work in sexual and reproductive health, to be upfront about those issues with our friends. But I truly believe it is our responsibility to do so. Not to lecture or patronize, but just to make it explicitly known that your non-judgemental support is available in ANY situation. Even if all you can do is provide a link or a phone number. For most women I talk to, the hardest part of having an abortion is the varying degrees of secrecy. Knowing there is someone to tell is a great relief.