I had the privilege of being asked to read and review a Life Choices: The Teachings of Abortion by abortion care pioneer Linda Weber. As someone who’s worked in abortion care myself, I was curious to hear what someone who’s worked in the field for decades had to say about the future of abortion care and how we can improve it. Instead of telling you how fantastic the book is (it is!), below is a glimpse into Weber’s beliefs and experiences first hand. In bold are the questions I asked her, followed by her thoughtful answers.
Your book revolves around your 40 years of experience as a counselor in an abortion clinic. You share the stories of many of your patients as well as your reflections on what these stories taught you. Can you share some of your self-care strategies? What kept you in abortion care work for 40 years?
I am a private psychotherapist, spiritual counselor, and women’s vision quest guide. I was in direct abortion services from 1970 to 1972 in New York City and from 1973 to 1987 in Boulder, Colorado. As you see, the forty years of counseling work has taken different forms. This keeps it interesting and stimulating to say the least. As a psychotherapist I hear all kinds of stories. Some of these are “gut-wrenching,” but mostly for the client. Part of the skill of a good counselor is to know how to receive people’s stories; in other words, how to listen correctly and reflect back to the person telling the story what it is I think I’m hearing along with insights into the importance of her story.
Care for myself is essential to be able to stay strong, centered, and receptive. In the early years of my work, I was occasionally overwhelmed by the intensity of what I was observing in my patients. As I matured and became more experienced, that kind of reaction to the work subsided. My self-care includes meditation, time in nature, journal writing, and making music, as well as regular down time. These things help me to maintain my perspective, which includes the understanding that whatever someone is going through holds the possibility for self-understanding and self-acceptance. As long as I am energized by the work I do, I will continue to do it.
You frequently discuss how “legal, freely chosen abortion” can lead to “authentic empowerment and autonomy for women.” Why do you frame abortion in this way? What role do you think women who’ve had abortions should play in the abortion rights movement? How can the abortion rights movement empower women who’ve had abortions without giving them the burden of speaking out about their experiences?
Illegal abortion is a truly horrible thing. It is not empowering; it is dangerous and traumatizing. Legal abortion is the opposite. While it can be difficult for women, it represents an expansion of the freedom to choose the direction of our lives. Reproductive choice making recognizes the individuality of a woman and her power to bring life through her body or not. The or not is of course the issue. Legal abortion raises profound issues about the role of women in society. This role has been determined for centuries by patriarchal law, which keeps women in limited roles defined primarily by marriage and motherhood. It is not coincidental that we are seeing significant societal changes at the same time that abortion has been legalized. It seems clear that we as a species have moved into a time of history when it is no longer necessary to be focused so exclusively on reproduction. As for individual psychology, I have witnessed life-changing growth for women when they courageously confront internal pain and conflicts about abortion. I have seen them step into their essence and life purpose with increased self-awareness that came directly from their willingness to address all the issues in their lives that were raised by their experience of abortion. Some of those stories are in the book.
As for political activism, that is up to the individual. There is no should with regard to women who have had abortions. With regard to empowering women, I think the pro-choice movement does that just by its existence and commitment to staying strong in the political arena. It can do more by embracing the full range of sensibilities among women. An organization that leads the way with this is Exhale, a post-abortion hotline out of Oakland, California. They describe themselves as pro-voice. It’s a good way to think about it.
You mention that working in abortion care lead you to see the lines blur between “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” It seems like most people identify somewhere in between those labels. How can the pro-choice movement both keep this in mind and continue to fight for abortion rights? Is there a way to change our messaging to better reflect the experience of women who’ve had abortions?
Most women making a decision about pregnancy are concerned about and feel responsible for life. This is as it should be given that pregnancy by definition is the channeling of life through the body. The attacks on women by the so-called pro-life movement make some women feel that somehow they are against life by choosing to have an abortion. In fact, the opposite is true. The choice of abortion is an active exercise of women’s role throughout history of making judgments about if, when, and where to bring life through. Abortion is just as pro-life as having a baby.
The pro-choice movement has to reclaim the word life. One way to do this is to talk about real life and to orient towards a perspective that embraces the way of life on Earth, which includes death (what I call taking life back into itself) as part of the flow. I think the recent “personhood” vote in Mississippi shows that most people whether they consider themselves pro-choice or pro-life, understand how real life works and will vote accordingly. So, I am suggesting that the best way to counter narrow ideological arguments is to broaden and deepen our own thinking.
You mention a medical model of abortion care, which isn’t sensitive to the emotional or spiritual needs of women seeking abortions. What do you propose as an alternative model? Some people say that having separate clinics that only perform abortions, for example, may further stigmatize abortion instead of incorporating the procedure into general medical practice. How do you negotiate both the need for feminist women’s health centers and the fact that they may further stigmatize abortion?
Women’s health clinics arose out of the women’s health movement, which was part of the women’s liberation movement. They filled a gap in care and emphasized education and empowerment. The movement was represented by the classic book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, and the feminist lobbying organization, the National Women’s Health Network (since 1975). Some abortion clinics follow this feminist model. Others are more like hospitals and follow traditional western medicine. Some are creative combinations of philosophies.
The medical model organizes care around the condition or disease, instead of centered in the person needing care. It recognizes the doctor as supreme. The alternative is to create forms that address medical needs in the context of people’s lives and that respect the narrative of those lives. It incorporates psychological and spiritual needs as intrinsic parts of treatment. Professionals act as a team and the patient has a central role in what happens. This would apply to all health care, not just women’s health. It’s a very large subject that I can’t go into depth about here.
The reason for separate services for abortion is mainly political. Abortion services have been ostracized in many communities. Many medical schools don’t even train physicians to perform abortions. I’ve heard that this is getting worse with the increase in the virulence of the fundamentalist religious influence on political discourse and the election of right wing legislators. I don’t think that having separate feminist health clinics stigmatizes abortion. I think that quite the opposite is true. Abortion is stigmatized because society is not yet able to fully embrace it as a legitimate part of life and a necessary and good health service. It is still in the shadow of social consciousness. Feminist health clinics lift abortion out of the shadow and into the light of legitimate experience. Just like safehouses and rape crisis teams, we look forward to a day when all women’s health services are incorporated as part of complete care.
Linda’s book is published by Sentient Publications. This post is part of a blog tour for her book. The next post will be at Feminists for Choice and the previous post was at Women’s Glib. If you’re interested in hearing Linda speak about her book, she’s going on a book tour on the West Coast of the US in February.