Abortion is one of the safest and most common outpatient procedures currently available. Though one in four women in America chooses to terminate a pregnancy, Republican fear-mongering and extremism renders abortion increasingly inaccessible, and more difficult to discuss.
While it’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such an assault on basic human rights, there are tangible ways to help: Donate to abortion funds, volunteer as a clinic escort, and support pro-abortion legislation. Another, more personal direct action is to offer support to a friend or family member who is seeking an abortion. Jezebel spoke to Dr. Gillian Dean, Senior Director of Medical Services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, about how best to talk with someone who is receiving an abortion or has suffered a miscarriage.
JEZEBEL: What are helpful things to say to someone when they tell you they had, or are going to have, an abortion?
DR. GILLIAN DEAN: The first thing that I would advise is to not make assumptions. It’s important to keep in mind that when somebody discloses that they are having an abortion, they can be having a range of experiences and emotions related to that abortion: feeling sad, feeling guilty, feeling grief. And some people feel immense relief, in addition. Some people don’t have very strong feelings at all, while other people have very strong reactions to the experience. Sometimes a person is experiencing all of this at the same time.
I think that’s the principle that should underpin your response. It’s also important to listen and respond with compassion rather than judgment. It’s really important to keep it confidential. Their abortion story is their abortion story and it’s not up to you to disclose it.
It can be very helpful to disclose or share your own abortion experience when your friend or loved one is having an abortion, but remember to listen compassionately and non-judgmentally. Even as you may disclose your own experience, understand that your experience and their experience may be quite different.
One of the things that you can remind your friend is that abortions are very, very common. So that can be sometimes very reassuring to people, that they are not alone even if they feel that way.
What are the tangible things you can do to show support?
Ask them what they need and how you can help. It might be something like: I just need you to be there. I need somebody to accompany me home from the health center. I want you to run to the pharmacy and pick up some pads or fill this prescription I was given. There are different ways you can show support, and the best way to know what kind of support to show is to ask.
Regarding the experience itself, offering to accompany the person and offering to contact other friends and family members if that is something that they want you to do on their behalf. If your friend is having a medication abortion, offer to be with your friend when they’re taking the medications and passing the pregnancy. Depending on where you live and where you are receiving care, you may have to walk past protesters and it can sometimes be really unpleasant. Offering to accompany your friend to the health center can be very supportive. Especially if you anticipate that they are going to be experiencing a situation where they may be hostile protesters shouting things at them.
And check in with them later, if appropriate.
Anti-abortion legislation also stigmatizes—and in some cases, criminalizes–miscarriages. That is something that’s hard to talk about. Can you talk about the emotions around that?
It’s important to let your friend know that miscarriages are very common. About one in five people experience a miscarriage. Reassure your friend that it is nothing they did that caused this miscarriage. Most of the time, we never know why miscarriages happen. Many of the things that people think may have caused their miscarriage, including having sex, eating certain foods, exercising, working, taking medications, drinking, or using drugs—those things do not, except for in very rare circumstances, do not cause miscarriages. Similarly, falling down, tripping, minor accidents for the most part do not cause miscarriages.
Reassuring your friend that it is nothing that they did might be very helpful because some people experience guilt around a miscarriage. Just as with abortion, some people experience a range of emotion around miscarriage. Emotions can range from shock, disappointment, they can feel guilty, and some people even feel relief if they had ambivalent feelings about the pregnancy and then that may make them feel guilty, in turn. So don’t make assumptions about what your friend might be experiencing.
How can you be supportive in that situation?
Listen with compassion and not judgment. Until your friend tells you what they’re experiencing, you cannot know. And although you yourself may have experienced a miscarriage or supported another person experiencing a miscarriage, everybody’s miscarriage is different. So it can be helpful to share your experience, but not to assume your experiences are going to be the same or that your friend will feel what you felt.
Ask them what they need. People have different options around how they manage a miscarriage. Sometimes people who have a miscarriage will find out that they had a miscarriage because they have heavy bleeding and cramping and they pass the pregnancy. Sometimes they’ll show up for an ultrasound and find that the pregnancy has passed before they even have any of those symptoms of bleeding and cramping. In that case, their healthcare provider will likely provide them a number of approaches to managing it, including just letting nature take its course, or using medication to cause the body to pass the pregnancy, similar to medication abortion, or having an aspiration to remove the pregnancy, similar to an aspiration abortion.
Depending on how your friend is managing the miscarriage, whether its supporting them by accompanying them to see their healthcare provider or being with them as they are using the medications, running to the pharmacy to get them some maxi pads—ask them how you can help.
What advice do you have for people trying to navigate abortion decisions now, in light of these extreme bans?
If a friend just went through an abortion experience and now there’s a new news alert about another state that’s passed another horrendous restriction on abortion access, remember that some of this news can be very upsetting and really resonate with them whether or not they experienced difficulty accessing an abortion. So check in with them.
It’s scary when you are a reproductive-aged person in this country seeing bans go up in this country, left and right, blocking access to essential health services. But it’s important to keep in mind—and to remind others—that right now these bans have not taken effect. So you can still go to a healthcare provider. Abortion is still safe and legal.