Waiting to Exhale

Post-Abortion Hotline Counsels Without Judgment

    Nothing in particular about Aspen Baker suggests she would be the type to throw herself into the middle of one of the nation’s most contentious and eternal battles.
    She’s one of those sensible-shoe-wearing women. Makeup and jewelry are kept to a minimum. At a recent event celebrating the five-year anniversary of Exhale, the nation’s first post-abortion talk line that she co-founded, she was the one in the brown dress and matching brown heels. The flashiest thing about her is her laugh—it’s one of those wide-mouthed, explosive guffaws, the kind that hints that what you see may not be all that you get.
    Yet whether it is by calculated design or the result of a conservative upbringing, the neutral image Baker exudes is in keeping with the mission she has embarked on with Exhale. Based in downtown Oakland, Exhale offers a support line free of judgment, rhetoric or politics to women who have had abortions.
    Each month, more than 500 callers take Exhale up on its offer to listen to their stories. They call from across the nation and from various racial and religious backgrounds. They are women who may have had an abortion as recently as the day before or as long as decades ago. They are women who’ve always supported legalized abortion; they are women who believe that abortion is immoral. After being unable to find anyone in their lives to speak with about a jumble of feelings, each one turned to the hotline.
    “We offer the space to tell that story, no matter what it is,’’ says Baker, 31, who serves as Exhale’s executive director. Perspectives, she says, run from “you think you’re a murderer and you killed your baby” to “killing my baby was the best thing I ever did.’’ Exhale got its start in Baker’s very small Oakland living room. She launched it with four like-minded women and $1,000 that had been raised at house parties.
They had just enough money to pay the phone bill. Today, Exhale has earned national recognition, been featured on CNN and has moved up to a two-room office not far from Oakland City Hall. The address of that office is never publicized, though; regardless of Exhale’s neutral position on abortion, Baker and her staff never forget that they are operating in the midst of a battlefield.
    Not that there have been any firebombing or death threats. Exhale, however, did receive its very first hate mail in spring 2007, after launching another original idea, post-abortion e-cards. Conservative talk show radio host Rush Limbaugh had a field day with the cards, which carry messages such as, “May you find peace after your abortion …’’ Thousands of angry
e-mails, some downright vicious—poured in to Exhale after that.
    “We didn’t expect the attention the cards got,’’ Baker says. “Then it was, ‘Oh, right. Abortion. People freak out about this. OK ….’ ’’
    With all the talk about abortion in this country, one would think there wouldn’t be a need for a talk line like Exhale. Since the Supreme Court legalized abortion with its Roe v. Wade ruling, the country has been immersed in a nearly four-decade discussion about it. Yet although the debate continues to rage between opposing sides, politicians and religious groups, the women who are having abortions remain outside the conversation, shrouded in stigma, silence and, often, shame.
    One out of every three women may be having an abortion by the age of 45, according to the National Abortion Federation, a pro-choice organization, but their friends, mothers and siblings likely know nothing about it. And so, when a woman is left alone with her thoughts about what she just went through, she may wonder where she can go if she needs to talk.
    Monica Lois, 29, is one of the women who dialed Exhale’s toll-free number. At 25, she had an abortion. She phoned Exhale nine months later. “It was right around the time I would have given birth, and I had a huge amount of grief,’’ she recalls. “I sought out a grief-support group and couldn’t find anything, which was really surprising to me.’’
    Her conversation with an Exhale counselor lasted 25 minutes. She remembers saying she felt sad and isolated and confused. The counselor, she says, told her that her feelings were normal and that she wasn’t alone.
    But the best thing she took away, Lois says, was a recommendation for a local Zen Buddhist ceremony held to acknowledge children who have died through abortion. On a spring day soon afterward, she attended the Mount Tamalpais ceremony and found some peace. Lois was so grateful to Exhale that she called back and volunteered. Today she is one of 32 volunteer counselors who answer Exhale’s phones seven days a week and in five languages.
    Exhale’s counselors, who are recruited by word of mouth, at universities and through craigslist, undergo 48 hours of training during which they practice how to offer assistance without any displaying any hint of judgment. Callers will never hear an opinion about abortion; they will never be told that they did the “wrong’’ or “right’’ thing. Words such as “should,”  “but” and “why” are avoided.
Not everyone can do it. Exhale has released two counselors in the past five years because Aspen, ever the diplomat, says, “They weren’t the right fit.’’
    But that doesn’t mean all counselors predictably come with pro-choice beliefs. Some, such as Joanna Cheung, stand firmly in the camp that opposes abortion. She is able to volunteer for Exhale, she says, because she focuses on the women, not the debate. “I really don’t have a problem with it,’’ says Cheung who counsels in Cantonese. “When they call, they have already made the decision; there’s nothing that can be done to go back. They call us because they have nowhere else to turn. I’m there to provide emotional support. I’m not there with my own agenda.’’
    In launching Exhale, Baker created a place she was never able to find for herself. She had gotten pregnant months after graduating from college.
    “I thought I was too smart to get pregnant,’’ says Baker, who grew up in the conservative Orange County enclave of San Clemente and was the type of girl who had always done the right thing. She’d also always supported abortion rights. But her experience after she became pregnant taught her that beliefs don’t always lead to easy decisions. After her abortion, she didn’t feel comfortable talking to family or friends, so she turned to the Internet for help with sorting through feelings that even today she doesn’t share easily. All she could find were sites that either told her she’d done the “right’’ thing or that she needed to seek forgiveness.
    These days, the hardest thing to face about Exhale, she says, is the realization that not everyone who calls the talk line will feel better after hanging up. “I think sometimes people want answers, and that can mean that people can be unsatisfied with our service,’’ she says. “But we do not solve their problems. We do not heal them. We do not tell them what to do.
     “What we can do is work with them to figure out what they can do for themselves,” she says. “We can say: We believe you. We trust you. We hear you.’’
    Exhale’s post-abortion talk line can be reached by calling 1-866-4Exhale 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Fri. and 12 p.m.–10 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
—By Thaai Walker
—Photography by Amy Perl

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