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Story highlights

Casting abortion politics aside, the "pro-voice" philosophy encourages storytelling and listening

An anonymous after-abortion talkline and a pastor who shares her own story serve as examples

(CNN) —  

One woman raised her hand to share her 40-year secret, something even her 46-year-old son doesn’t know. Another spoke up to say she feared that God would no longer love her. A third wept in the back of the room, quietly grieving for those around her.

They were among the dozens of people who gathered on a February evening in a Seattle church parlor to hear from the Rev. Susan Chorley.

The Boston-area pastor had come to talk about abortion – her abortion.

By speaking about a subject so many deem unspeakable, she’d empowered others to come forward. She says it’s always this way.

Chorley, 44, bared her soul about the gut-wrenching choice she never thought she’d have to make. She was a stressed-out new pastor with a 2-year-old son and a crumbling marriage when she had her abortion a dozen years ago.

Far more painful than the procedure, she says, was the isolation she felt afterward. A woman in the ministry who feared being cast out, she suffered in silence.

Not anymore.

Since June, Chorley has been visiting churches across the country to share her story. It’s part of a recent effort by a group she helped found years ago to support women and men after abortions.

Called Exhale, the group creates safe spaces to talk about abortion without letting politics intrude.

It’s a “pro-voice” philosophy that shuns the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels society foists on this hot-button issue. Instead, it encourages compassionate listening and storytelling through various efforts – including a free and anonymous talkline, the sharing of a viral TED Talk, a 2015 book and Chorley’s tour of churches. A documentary film about the mission, “Navigating the Divide,” is also nearing completion.

“We try to put people in boxes, and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. It’s just caused this huge divide,” Chorley said. Whether we like it or not, “abortion is happening among us, and it’s time we looked at it and talked about it.”

In the middle of a war

Chorley was attending seminary in Berkeley, California, years ago when she met a woman who wasn’t afraid to speak up.

At a class for rape hotline volunteers, Aspen Baker said something that left Chorley gobsmacked.

“She said, ‘I had an abortion, and I’d like to start a talkline. I’m here to learn how,’ ” Chorley remembered. “I had never heard someone say that.”

Chorley had a similar dream; she imagined building a ministry to help women tell stories people don’t want to hear. She was immediately on board.

Along with a few others, the pair helped found Exhale in Oakland, where it is still based. Chorley is on the board of directors; Baker serves as the executive director.

Now 41, married and the mother of a 2-year-old boy, Baker was 24 when she had her abortion.

She was “born in a trailer on the third anniversary of Roe v. Wade” and grew up in Southern California “in the middle of the abortion wars.”

She was raised in a Christian community, which she described as “conservative but also very compassionate,” and didn’t believe that it was anyone’s job to tell others what to do with their lives when it came to abortion. But she also knew she’d never have one herself.

And then she found herself pregnant. She was a recent college grad in a new relationship, and what had seemed such an obvious choice in theory felt profoundly different in practice. The decision to have an abortion threw her into a moral crisis about who she was and what she valued.

Aspen Baker, executive director of Exhale, speaks at TEDWomen 2015 about her mission and her abortion.
PHOTO: Marla Aufmuth/TED
Aspen Baker, executive director of Exhale, speaks at TEDWomen 2015 about her mission and her abortion.

After the procedure, she assumed the clinic would offer a resource for emotional support, but it didn’t. So she was left to search for help on her own. Anti-abortion religious support services were readily available, but she couldn’t find anything that was politically neutral.

“I’d had a naïve perspective of the world about the kind of choices you face in life. They’re not always simple,” she said. “Those overarching values that I originally learned from being Christian – acceptance, love … and forgiveness – those things need to be practiced and not just spoken.”

Since 2002, Exhale’s talkline has offered an anonymous place for people to express their feelings without judgment. It’s there for the feminist who is haunted by regret, the Catholic who’s overwhelmed with relief and anyone else who needs an ear.

Whether callers dub themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice” is simply irrelevant.

“Our callers already made their choice,” Baker wrote in her book, “Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight,” which came out in 2015 – the same year her TED Talk caught fire.

“Our job isn’t to decide whether or not theirs was the right or wrong decision but to make sure that they get the unconditional love and support they need to move forward and have healthy lives.”

Convincing others of this motive wasn’t easy.

When Baker started sharing her vision, people would immediately ask, “Are you for or against abortion?” It’s a question she wouldn’t answer then and won’t now.

Those who support abortion rights were sure Exhale was secretly anti-abortion, while opponents were equally convinced it was an undercover organization for the abortion rights movement.

Exhale never showed up at rallies or protests, which further fueled suspicion.

“To do something different felt like an attack,” she said of those early years.

Today, many abortion providers give patients a pamphlet about Exhale. It’s a free service that meets a need they don’t have the time or money to offer themselves.

Exhale also no longer exists on an island. Like-minded efforts have sprouted up more recently, including Connect & Breathe out of New York. Abortion doulas, who provide emotional support to women during and after abortions, also have stepped onto the landscape.

The pro-voice model, Baker says, is something that extends beyond abortion itself. It’s a nonjudgmental approach to living, she says, that can help people grapple with any number of tough topics.

Sharing secrets

As the daughter of a minister, Chorley grew up believing that “God loved me all the way, no matter what.” But when she had her abortion, she was no longer sure.

Today, Chorley knows that plenty of people sit in pews weighed down by their own feelings of shame or pain – not just about abortion. Perhaps they’re hiding family secrets of addiction or domestic violence. Maybe they fear being open about their gender identity, sexual orientation, a disability or mental illness.

Chorley and others who subscribe to the pro-voice philosophy want this to change. She believes people should feel safe bringing their whole selves to church – and to life.

That’s why she agreed to be featured in June in a Parents magazine article about moms who’ve had abortions. And that’s what sparked the “Pro-Voice Tour” that landed her in this Seattle church.

When Chorley and her husband became pregnant the second time around, she says, the word “divorce” hadn’t been raised yet – but she suspected it would come up. She and her soon-to-be ex, she told the crowd, agreed that it was no time to bring another child into the family. But just because the decision felt right at the time doesn’t mean she didn’t struggle. Sometimes, she still does.

She always thought she’d have a second child and has moments when she grieves over the fact that she didn’t. The sight of a bumper sticker that reads “Abortion stops a beating heart” can still catch her breath, as do signs held by protesters who call what she did “murder.”

“They don’t know anything about you,” she said of those who publicly judge a decision she never thought she’d have to make. “They feel this privilege to put this in your face.”

When her son Franz, now 14, asked her what an abortion was four years ago, she had to be honest with her only child. They’d just driven past an abortion clinic, where protesters screamed and waved signs outside. Franz asked what an abortion was, so she told him.

“Why in the world would anyone do that?” he asked.

She took a deep breath and answered, “I made that decision once,” before telling him how hard it was.

Franz sat in the church as she shared this story and weighed in with how he felt upon learning this.

Each time the Rev. Susan Chorley visits a church to share her own abortion story, other women are empowered to talk about theirs.
PHOTO: Mimi Schiffman for CNN
Each time the Rev. Susan Chorley visits a church to share her own abortion story, other women are empowered to talk about theirs.

“It took a while to process it,” he told the crowd. But then his mom told him about Exhale, and he began to realize, “It’s not something I can judge people about, especially my own mother.”

Each time Chorley visits churches to share her abortion story, she says, at least a few women come forward afterward to reveal their own.

She describes one woman, nearly 90, who pushed her walker to the front of a church while sobbing.

“I had an illegal abortion when I was 20,” she told Chorley. “I never told anyone, and I never thought it would be talked about in a church.”

Those gathered in Seattle First Baptist Church are men and women, young adults and the elderly. Several hands go up during the discussion.

“I have this 40-year-old secret, and no one in my family knows,” says one woman, who describes her family as “right-wing conservative.”

“It’s amazing the energy it takes to keep that stuff inside,” she continued. “There’s so much guilt and shame.”

“I have a very conservative friend who’s had a couple abortions,” a younger woman says. “She didn’t have any support after she went through it.”

“I was on the pill and got pregnant,” says a woman who, already a mother, had her abortion in the early 1970s, when it was still illegal. “I went through a lot of agony. Will God love me? Am I an OK person?”

On a couch in the back of the parlor, a woman weeps.

“I can’t imagine having to make that choice,” she says. “God’s will is our will, and even when we make mistakes, He’s there to lift us up.”

There was a time, during her darkest days, that Chorley worried that she might go to hell. But she is now kinder and gentler with her herself. An ordained American Baptist minister, she serves as the associate director of an urban ministry where she, among other things, is the director of a domestic violence shelter. She accepts that we all fall short and that she was never alone.

“Why did I grow up not knowing that anyone had been through this experience?” she asked. “Why is that so hidden?”

Being there

In a downtown Oakland conference room, eight women are being trained as Exhale talkline counselors. Several say they wish they’d known about this service when they were struggling after their own abortions.

One said her provider told her to keep it a secret, so she did – and moved 3,000 miles away from where it happened. It took alcohol abuse and being sexually assaulted, she said, to realize that it was OK to feel pain.

The commitment these trainees have made over six consecutive Saturdays will help ensure that others aren’t left to suffer in secret. On a wall hangs a long sheet listing several dozen “myths about abortions.” Included are phrases like “Women who have abortions can’t be pro-life,” “only non-religious people have abortions” and “men aren’t affected.”

Their trainers guide them in conversations about cultural sensitivity, how to be there for men who reach out and the importance of open-ended questions. They explore ways to highlight the strengths of callers and encourage self-care.

During role-playing exercises, they practice best ways to validate feelings and try out their pseudonyms, which all counselors use.

To the one who’s confused: “You don’t have to have all the answers right now.” To the caller who’s wracked with regret: “It sounds like you made the best decision you could with the resources you had at the time.” To the one who’s steeped in sadness: “It doesn’t mean you’ll feel this way forever.”

Volunteer counselors are expected to work eight two- or three-hour shifts a month in their first year, and they receive the calls at home after being connected through an answering service.

One of the trainers uses the pseudonym “Nina.” She works full-time in reproductive health and has been taking calls for Exhale for more than four years. These days, depending on her availability, she takes on one to four shifts each month.

Before getting involved with Exhale, she said, she’d never had a good conversation about abortion. It had always felt too politicized, and she wanted to connect with people who’d had the experience and “get grounded in their reality” – as she’s never had an abortion herself.

The reality for callers runs the gamut.

Nina remembers the woman who came from a family opposed to abortion and who was against it herself but found herself in an abusive relationship when she became pregnant and had her abortion.

She describes the mothers and fathers who call, wanting to know how to best support their daughters who aren’t ready to call themselves.

She recalls the woman with bipolar disorder who blamed herself for being sick; she’d desperately wanted the baby but feared that if she went off her medications to continue the pregnancy, she would have killed herself.

She talks about the ones who can’t stop crying and the others who feel guilty for feeling relieved.

Faith comes up maybe 10% to 15% of the time, Nina says. To the one who worries that God won’t forgive her, Nina might ask, “What does forgiveness look like in your faith?” or “Is your God a forgiving God?” Then, she might say, “Do you feel like you can forgive yourself?”

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The longest and toughest call she’s had? The boyfriend who, three years after the fact, couldn’t shake the guilt he had over persuading his girlfriend to get an abortion.

Nina used to see herself as a “rescuer,” she said, someone who had to “fix things.” But this work has taught her to let go of that inner voice and accept that her job is to simply be there for people. In giving this way to others, she’s helped herself.

“It’s enriched my life, how I treat my family members and my friends and how I am toward myself,” Nina said. “It’s about compassion, and we all need that.”

And in today’s climate, where the world often seems so divided, actively choosing to not pick sides and honor people’s stories feels more important than ever, she says.

“There are very few spaces to feel supported in hard conversations. When we give people that space, it feels like a hug, and that’s super powerful,” Nina said. “I don’t have to have a stance; I just have to be present.”