Aspen Baker has been leading the charge for a new way to talk about abortion since 2000 when she co-founded Exhale, a group focused on "the emotional health and wellbeing of women and men after abortion.” While Exhale is probably best known for its after-abortion talkline, it has also made waves with its e-cards (ridiculed by some conservative media) and its advisory role in the abortion episode of MTV’s "16 and Pregnant." Baker released her first book, "Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight," in June. In this edited and condensed interview, she defines "pro-voice," talks race in the reproductive rights movement and shares how hard it is to resist pro-choice or pro-life labels.
What is the “pro-voice” philosophy?
"Pro-voice" is a framework that helps people and organizations shift from conflict into conversation. Its hallmarks are listening and storytelling. My [Exhale] co-founders and I created pro-voice because we felt like the labels of "pro-choice" and "pro-life" were a barrier to people who might call our hotline. We started without a label, but we got tired of talking about what we were not, instead of what we were for. What we were for was building a supportive, empathetic culture around abortion experiences.
In the book you hint a bit at the opposition that Exhale has faced. Can you give some examples?
When we started Exhale there was incredible fear and concern that talking openly about abortion emotions—especially ones like sadness or grief or loss—would erode [abortion rights]. We faced that criticism for many years [from] the pro-choice movement. But over time we’ve seen more and more people adopting elements of [our approach].
How has the pro-life movement responded to you?
There are women in the pro-life movement who have developed support services for women who have had abortions. The criticism there is that [people who provide these services] are normalizing abortion and that shouldn’t happen.
But I think there is great diversity within the pro-life and pro-choice movements. One of the questions I often get with the book [is about] this idea that we’re going in to talk to the extreme pro-lifers or extreme pro-choicers and hash out some common-ground public policy. That’s not what we’re doing. Pro-voice is about starting with people who’ve had an abortion first and building leadership where they want to be effective.
You mention briefly in the book the way race impacts how people receive abortion stories—being more likely to question women of color, for example. How has Exhale dealt with race?
When my co-founders and I started Exhale we were incredibly influenced by the leadership of women of color in reproductive health and justice. We saw how the pro-choice move towards messages of privacy and against government inclusion, this [essentially] libertarian move, left a lot of women of color behind. Two of my five co-founders identify as women of color. We were very committed to [building] an anti-racist framework.
What that means in terms of how we provide direct emotional support [is that] we recognize that people’s experiences are influenced by many things: their age, their race, their families, in addition to the systems of racism and oppression. We believe that they are their own best expert. We ask ourselves, "How do we listen to that and provide support for it?"
How would you respond to, say, racially-charged anti-abortion billboard campaigns from a pro-voice perspective?
Part of what we have tried to do is establish the thing that we want. Exhale doesn’t have much of a history of pointing out when we don’t like things. That is a challenge in a time of conflict and division, let’s be real about that. I don’t know that we’ve always gotten that right.
[But] pro-voice is about building support and respect for people’s lived experiences. So creating a culture of judgment, shame and guilt is not a part of pro-voice. We want black women who have had abortions to feel like they are supported and respected for their experiences. Period.
In the book you rely heavily on lessons you’ve learned from the Civil Rights Movement, particularly from Martin Luther King Jr. What brought you to these comparisons?
It’s just honest. I wanted to be transparent about what has influenced me.
These kind of race and gender comparisons often receive pushback.
There are lots of things to be learned from other social justice movements [and] other people’s struggles. I tried not to say, "this is the new that." These things are complex and very layered. For me the Civil Rights Movement [comparison] isn’t that gender is the new race. I’m inspired by the [Civil Rights] approach to undoing oppression and building a new normal that is just and caring. Nowhere is this about perfect people and perfect leadership.
I think the [point] I’m trying to make is that in movements there are different pressures to get behind certain ideas and strategies. The pro-voice stand [is] for connection even in the midst of polarization. That seems like a crazy thing to do, and lots of people are mad at me for doing that. I need to look to other kinds of leaders and movements to find inspiration.
Does a pro-voice organization have any role to play in addressing the tide of policies limiting access to abortion?
That is the question that we’ve gotten since the beginning. Part of what pro-voice is doing is taking that stand of empathy and compassion, even when it’s really difficult. It’s not that these political fights are not important. If abortion was simple there wouldn’t be a fight about. We can keep fighting about it, but I don’t know that that will then bring a different result. Pro-voice becomes a way of building a new cultural norm of respect. That needs to happen, even in a moment of great hostility.