A Lesson in Listening

"A group of women who have had abortions will be meeting" read the sign on the women's room wall. Immediately I knew I wanted to go. But why? I had never had an abortion. Just seven months earlier I had lost a child to miscarriage. What was drawing me there?

The sign went on: "We are a group of women who, having shared this experience, have come together to support and heal ourselves and each other."

"This experience." Did I share it?

"We are beginning to heal through sharing our different experiences and realizing our common feelings and struggles through our conflict about having had abortions."

Would we have some common feelings about what we'd gone through? Certainly we would have differences in both our experiences and our feelings.

"Women who have had abortions are invited to come and share, ask questions, or just listen. All discussion and attendance are confidential."

Did I have a right to be there? Would I be infringing upon their privacy? Why do I really want to go? Wasn't I through processing my loss? I'm pregnant again; what will they think of that?

I went.

I WAS VERY NERVOUS as I walked into that first meeting. I am one of a team of campus ministers and thought about offering my "services" to them in this role. I knew though that this was not appropriate. They hadn't asked for my services, and inside I knew that I would be using my role as a buffer. Something to put between me and them. No, I needed to go on my own. I needed to be as vulnerable as they were.

No one said much at first. It wasn't clear who was leading the group or what would happen. There were seven or eight of us there. At some point one of the members who had, I later found out, founded the group the year before, suggested we go around, tell our names, and say a bit about why we were there.

I spoke first and quickly. Before any of them had revealed anything, I wanted them to have the option of dis-inviting me from the group. I don't remember exactly what I said-something about my having recently miscarried and feeling like this might be a place where I could share some of that experience. I said I knew our experiences weren't exactly the same, and I was prepared to leave if anyone felt uncomfortable with my being there. I blurted all this out and waited.

They didn't ask me to leave. They welcomed me. Some even said they thought I had courage for coming. (If they only knew what I was feeling on the inside. I hadn't told them I was pregnant, and I hadn't told them about my desire to hide behind campus ministry.) But I had told them enough, and they invited me in.

I never shared much of my experience with them, but I listened. For the next three months I listened. And I processed the amazing ways our experiences were the same, and the ways they were different.

The most profound message I heard from these women was their experience of marginalization. Here, on a very politically awake campus, these women gathered in secrecy to talk about their experience and how it has had and continues to have an effect on their lives.

The following is Jeanne's story. Resist the urge to use or manipulate her story to support your position or negate another's. Just listen.

I've never really thought of my story as a story. It's interesting to think about how someone else might hear it. The first thing I would like to say is that my abortion was a turning point for me. It made me much more dedicated to my life in general. I live everyday now as much as I can. I don't know if this is motivated by guilt or by acceptance. I tend to feel less sorry for myself than I used to. I think it's had more of an effect on my personality than anything.

Personally for me, it's something I can refer back to for strength. Knowing I went through that, I can go through anything. It's not like I don't go back and forth on it still. Did I do the right thing or is it because I'm white, in college, with enough money to get through it? Is it because I'm privileged?

It almost immediately became political for me. The night before my abortion, I watched this TV documentary. It was really awful-very extreme on both sides. It made me realize that both guys representing the extremes are fanatics, and I don't want to be aligned with either one of these people.

I never felt like I was exercising my free choice. On the other hand, I'm thankful that I did have a choice, so there is this whole complication. It's not a choice that you feel empowered by. That's why for me it's not a political issue. I can't go out and "fight for my right to have an abortion." I feel there needs to be politics that say that abortions can be had, but inevitably we need to move toward the kind of world where abortions aren't necessary.

THIS IS JUST ONE woman's story. She and others like her don't feel safe to share their experience with the political camp that calls itself pro-life because their stories may be used to demonstrate that they, because of what they have experienced, are immoral. They don't feel safe to share their stories with the political camp that calls itself pro-choice either, because this group is equally unprepared to deal with the fullness of their experience. Here, their grief might be denied.

In the process of politicizing and moralizing this issue, we've stopped listening, and these women are falling through the cracks. There is no quicker way to rip the heart out of a woman's experience than to make her into an "issue."

It is time for us to listen.

DEANNA WYLIE MAYER is a campus minister at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

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