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Common Ground on Abortion

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When President Obama called for Americans to find "common ground" in the abortion debate, I thought of Exhale and our message of pro-voice. I know we can all stand on common ground, because I see it under our feet. On May 27, 2009, I and fellow Pro-Voice Ambassadors stood together on that common ground and advocated for research that supports the emotional well-being of each woman who has had an abortion. That day, I gave oral testimony before the National Institutes of Health at a regional meeting in San Francisco, which gave communities a voice in establishing research priorities for women's health over the next 10 years. I asked that the Office of Women's Health Research (NIH/OWHR) work to better understand what women, and their loved ones, need after an abortion in order to support their own emotional well-being.

The desire for the emotional well-being of women is common ground. It doesn't require compromise of human rights or moral values and it doesn't require the sacrifice of dearly held beliefs. The research agenda we proposed to the NIH/OWHR reveals this common ground by addressing three indisputable facts:

1. Millions of American women have already had abortions.
2. The personal experience of abortion can be emotional.
3. People want and deserve emotional well-being.

In my testimony, I spoke about my own experience searching for resources after my abortion, a journey that led me to found Exhale, the nation's first organization dedicated to promoting emotional well-being after an abortion.

Danielle Thomas, a fellow Pro-Voice Ambassador and an Exhale counselor, spoke about her experiences on Exhale's national, multilingual post-abortion talkline. We spoke about the important role of emotional health in overall health and well-being.

Finally, we provided recommendations for the research the NIH/OWHR should undertake to promote emotional well-being post-abortion, which includes the need to:

* Assess the psychological and emotional needs of women after an abortion.

* Evaluate the effects of different post-abortion emotional support models on a woman's well-being.

* Examine men's emotional experience with abortion.

* Understand the characteristics of healthy coping after an abortion in diverse communities.

* Explore the connection between the social experience and the emotional experience of abortion.

Common ground is not just a plan to be unveiled by the White House, known only to President Obama and his advisors. There is no such thing as a "common ground" political position. You cannot search for common ground or set it as a goal, like ending smoking or drunk driving. Common ground is what is real, truthful, and undisputed, and it is always beneath our feet. Our responsibility as pro-life, pro-choice, or pro-voice advocates is to notice it, acknowledge it, and seek to address it.

The need for this approach is clear when it comes to the emotional experience of abortion. For too long, the polarizing impulses of the abortion conflict have held this issue hostage. The facts -- abortions have already happened, they can be emotional, and people want emotional well-being -- have been turned into political fodder instead of being addressed seriously, comprehensively, and publicly as important information about a woman's well-being. Consider the "regret vs. relief" stand-off about what "most women" feel after an abortion. The dichotomy serves political ends and helps differentiate opponents. What it doesn't do is offer a way forward, or paint a picture of how the world would look and feel if these three indisputable facts were addressed.

Forcing the issue into either-or territory creates false choices, even in how to identify one's own position on abortion: "Do I side with those who understand that abortion can be emotional, but who want to limit its availability, or do I side with those who try to make it more available but refuse to acknowledge its emotional impact?"

This has been a choice forced upon many Americans. It is one choice none of us should have to make. As Jon Stewart said in his recent interview with Mike Huckabee on The Daily Show, choosing sides on abortion often feels like a choice between "frenzied and maniacal or callous and indifferent."

We deserve more, and better. There is common ground upon which to stand.

Instead of being forced into a false choice, Americans should feel confident that their legitimate concerns about indisputable facts are being taken seriously, and that the emotional well-being of women who have had abortions is being addressed, pro-actively.

This is what I want. This is why we started Exhale: to address the reality of abortion in women's lives and to take a stand next to each and every woman who has had one. We call our work pro-voice, because it is the voices and experiences of those who have lived this issue that should drive the discussion. On The Daily Show, when Mr. Huckabee posed a question about how pregnant women think through their rights and responsibilities, what I wanted most was for the women who have called Exhale to have the chance to answer. Their voices could directly counter the problem with the abortion debate, which Mr. Huckabee described as generating "more heat than light."

Of course, as Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University, recently pointed out in a speech to Planned Parenthood, we should not push or prod people to speak out about a personal, stigmatized issue. This can in fact cause more pain and be detrimental to emotional well-being. Instead, respect and comfort are the best tools for helping people to build their confidence and resiliency. This is one more reason why it is important to directly address the facts through research, and create a deep and thorough understanding of women's emotional experiences with abortion.

Forward-thinking leaders have already embraced this challenge. Tracy Weitz is leading a research effort at the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California-San Francisco to better understand women's emotional experiences with abortion, a project that Exhale was proud to join as a partner. Ms. Weitz is pro-actively addressing the indisputable facts -- women have had abortions, abortion can be emotional, and people want emotional well-being -- and ANSIRH's investigation will help identify how best to respond to them. I hope more leaders will follow her example.

Research to promote emotional well-being after an abortion is common ground because there is nothing to compromise, no human right or moral value to sacrifice, no ground to give way. The only losers are those who fight to keep things the way they are.

But the winners! Let's consider them. Americans will win because their concerns will be taken seriously, and they will reward forward-thinking leaders with new credibility, another win. Most important, women who have had abortions will win because there will be research, information and services to support their emotional well-being.

Undoubtedly, there will be big debates over President Obama's common ground policy. I hope that leaders will remember that common ground -- the indisputable facts: women have had abortions, abortion can be emotional, and people want emotional well-being -- is always beneath our feet. All we have to do is look down, respond, and stand strong together.

This post was first published on RH Reality Check.