14 Mar 2019

Let’s be pro-voice -- an interview with activist Aspen Baker

Empathy makes it possible to challenge stereotypes, stigmas, discrimination, and prejudice. It teaches us to look at people with respect for diversity instead of fear -- Aspen Baker.

Wysokie Obcasy
Maria Hawranek Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Let’s be pro-voice -- an interview with activist Aspen Baker  - NewsMavens
Aspen Baker, YouTube

The following selections from Maria Hawranek's interview with Aspen Baker originally appeared in the Polish weekly "Wysokie Obcasy" in July 2017.

Maria Hawranek: You seem to be from a family of Christian surfers. Is that a religious trend?

Aspen Baker: I usually say that to counter the stereotypes that people have today when they hear the words “Christian community.” I was raised on the beach in southern California in a natural, almost hippy environment. We surfed every day, but didn’t drink much alcohol, and in the evenings we gathered around the campfire to sing songs for Jesus.

MH: In your environment, abortion was unthinkable.

We were all pro-life! I was too! As a young girl, I was certain that if I ever became pregnant, I would give birth, and the very thought of ending it filled me with sadness. And yet I wound up doing something I never would have predicted.

MH: How did it happen?

I was 24 years old, had just finished college, and was in a relationship. I’d had three pregnancy tests. They were all positive. Sitting on the toilet, I imagined myself as a mom. But as soon as I told my boyfriend, he proposed getting an abortion.

I didn’t feel strong enough to do this on my own. I was also afraid that I would regret it later. I went back and forth. How could I decide? What were the criteria? One day I woke up certain that I would have the baby, and the next day that I wouldn’t.

In the meantime, I made an appointment to visit the clinic, so I could explore both options. It was a strange feeling. As a sixteen year old, I’d flown in a plane on my own. As a twenty year old, I’d driven from California to Alaska, but I’d never before felt so alone.

MH: Your friend Polly helped you.

It was summer. We were working in a bar in Berkeley. Every evening after we closed the cash register, we made ourselves a drink.

That evening, I told her, “I’m pregnant. I don’t know what to do.” And immediately she said, without hesitation, “I had an abortion.”

Polly gave me an enormous gift then -- the awareness that I wasn’t alone. I’d never felt that before! I liked her and I suddenly realized that everything was still okay with her, or rather that she’d managed to live on after this important decision. Suddenly it became apparent that abortion was a topic that could be discussed.

MH: What happened next?

Up until the last minute, I wasn’t sure what to do. My friend Heather went with me to the clinic. I warned her that I might not go through with it. I remembered a girl, a surfer, who once told me on the beach that she was alive only because her mom had left the abortion clinic. But there was no miraculous reversal for me.

I went through with the procedure and at once I felt enormous relief. Before, I’d been wrestling with this immensely difficult decision, full of emotion and drama. And suddenly -- bliss.

When I returned home, there was a bouquet of flowers waiting for me with a card that said, “Thinking of you” from my friend, Jodie. I didn’t expect that it was possible to support someone in such a situation.

MH: But how did you feel later?

Awful! A month later, I had fallen into an emotional pit. I ate too much ice cream, drank too much wine, and continuously thought, “Who am I, if I am no longer that girl who would never end a pregnancy? What did I want out of life? What values did I believe in?”

I looked for support in the yellow pages. It was 1999, and not everyone was on the Internet. But I only knew Christian organizations, who only spoke of abortion from the perspective of regret for sins and the possibility of forgiveness -- that wasn't what I was looking for. So I signed up for therapy, which lasted two years. However, the thought of the relief that I experienced after my conversation with Polly never left me.

I was struck by the chasm between the narratives of pro-life and pro-choice groups, their black-and-white stories told for political ends. In real life, there are so many shades of grey!

MH: Where did you meet the women with whom you founded the organization, Exhale, a year later?

At the Rape Crisis Center, an organization assisting victims of rape and molestation. I went there as a volunteer, already thinking that I would establish a similar organization for women after an abortion.

MH: [Before Trump took office he said he] would deny US aid for non-governmental women’s organizations that supported abortion in any way. What would people have said about this when you established Exhale in 2000?

Back then we were bound by two kinds of stories: the pro-life woman who had an abortion, suffered regret, and wanted to warn others against following this path, and the pro-choice woman who had had an illegal abortion under difficult circumstances. Both stories were horrifying!

No one asked women about their abortion experience with genuine curiosity, just “Which side are you on?” That is why we decided that would exist in the grey zone in between, the most difficult space. In order not to be pigeonholed, we came up with the idea of “pro-voice.”

We don’t advocate for either side; we listen to stories. We want to support people who have so many motivations, layers, and different feelings in their multidimensional existence. That is part of our struggle -- you can’t put us all into one basket.

We are real people with full lives and complex histories. And we will advocate for all women, even when it is not comfortable for either side.

MH: And what if I don’t want to discuss it, because I don’t approve of abortion, homosexuality, or accepting refugees, period?

Pro-voice is not an expression of agreement or of taking the same point of view. Do you know how my father reacted when he found out about my planned procedure? We were very close, so I confided in him, and he blew up at me and said so many unfortunate things. I cried all night. The next day he called and said that he cried too, and that he wanted to support me in any way he knew how.

That didn’t mean that he suddenly became pro-choice, or that he supported abortion rights, but that he supported me as his daughter, and he wanted to be with me, even if I did something that he was opposed to. This kind of empathy is our goal, and is precisely what is lost in the public debate. Empathy makes it possible to challenge stereotypes, stigmas, discrimination, and prejudice. It teaches us to look at people with respect for diversity instead of fear.


Aspen Baker – leader, speaker, and author of the book Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight. Co-founder and former Executive Director of Exhale, a non-profit organization that supports women after an abortion. Her 2015 TED Talk has more than 1.6 million views. She lives in Oakland, California.

Translated by David A. Goldfarb


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