Learning to Listen: What The Abortion Diary Podcast Reveals
Melissa Madera—who had an abortion at 17—was 30 years old before she could bring herself to talk about it. Like many post-abortive women, she lived in fear of judgment and rejection from friends and family. When she finally did share her story though, she was surprised to discover a startling number of women around her who were post-abortive as well, women who were suddenly willing to share their stories in response to her own.
This revelation led her to speculate about a significant void in the conversation surrounding abortion: Why, she wondered, isn’t there a safe space for women to share their abortion experiences, a space where they will not be critiqued, condemned, or appropriated for political use? And how might the liberating power of storytelling be used to fill this void?
I did not anticipate the extent to which listening to these accounts would be heart-wrenching, nor the extent to which I would find myself experiencing a strikingly-deep love for these women willing to share their stories.There is plenty of public discussion about abortion: court cases, legislation, and pro-life/pro-choice position statements from candidates fill our newsfeeds daily. But beyond the polarizing political discourse, the voices of actual individuals considering or impacted by abortion are in a noticeable minority, if not totally absent. So, in July 2013, Madera began The Abortion Diary podcast.
On her own dime, Madera traveled around the country meeting with post-abortive women and recording their abortion stories. The podcast now has over 100 episodes, each chronicling one woman’s narrative. The women represented come from a diversity of states (several are even international), and the experiences shared date from as far back as the 1950s to as recently as 2014. The women are of all ethnicities, of all ages, and of all income classes. Some of the abortions were obtained legally; others were not. There are early and late-term abortions described. The diversity of experiences represented is noteworthy.
In a recent article for Christ and Pop Culture, I described the importance of listening to—seeking out even—the more “challenging” post-abortive stories, arguing that stigmatizing women who have chosen abortion belongs, well, nowhere really, but least of all in the church. The reality we are facing with abortion is that, statistically, one out of every three women will terminate a pregnancy in her lifetime. The odds that we know someone who has had, is considering, or will consider an abortion is very high. With this in mind, it is almost impossible to have the issue on the table and open for conversation often enough, especially in the church where we are called to look out for, protect, support, and comfort one another.
But how, specifically and practically, can we generate such conversations?
The Abortion Diary podcast might be a good model, surprisingly enough. A few months ago, I challenged myself to listen to every single episode—102 to date—an endeavor I fully expected to be challenging, thought-provoking, maybe even troubling, frustrating, or enlightening. It was all of the above. I did not, however, anticipate the extent to which it would be heart-wrenching, nor the extent to which I would find myself experiencing a strikingly-deep love for these women willing to share their stories.
I would maintain that most of us might be surprised by the compassion sparked in our hearts when we must—as the podcast format demands—just sit and listen, without the ability to respond, to the story of others. And after listening to over 100 abortion stories, I found myself invigorated by empathy and eager to record these several reflections on how we might generate such freedom to speak in our own communities and relationships, how—being each one of us “the worst of sinners”—there is nothing to fear from these conversations but only freedom and greater understanding.
Here are a few humble thoughts:
- Christians should strive to be better known for our dependability, resourcefulness, and willingness to help others, even in times of the greatest inconvenience. A striking number of The Abortion Diary narrators described having no one to talk to when they discovered their pregnancy. Some did not know the father of the child; others knew but didn’t feel comfortable or safe telling him. Still others told the fathers but were pressured against their will to abort. We need to be—for as many people in our circle as possible—someone others put “first on speed dial” and come to when they are desperate.
- Learn to look for contexts where abortion is likely, and find ways to address the need behind what can be a survival-instinct to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy as quickly as possible. Every study I have encountered on women’s motives for abortion include at the top of the list inconvenience to lifestyle (education, career, etc.) and/or unstable relationships, motives played out in nearly every narrative on The Abortion Diary podcast. Though this can clearly be hard to pinpoint, we should individually and corporately look for ways to minister to women we see in struggling relationships or who live lifestyles pressured by circumstances associated statistically with abortion, particularly asserting a willingness to be resourceful and make pregnancy and childcare surmountable hurdles.
- Help mothers. Too many women feel a child could not possibly fit into their lives. They simply cannot envision the logistics of how this would work. Model to the world that the church community supports, provides for, and makes motherhood a manageable and welcome choice. Advocate for better maternity and paternity leave policies. Advocate for child-care in the workplace. Offer childcare to your friends. The face of abortion is not always, or even primarily, an unwed teenager. Often, it is a married woman with other kids and a stable home. We do not know who may be feeling overwhelmed. It is our duty in Christ though to extend ourselves to others constantly. He can use us to meet needs that may not even have apparently existed.
- Do not forget the “other” abortion stories. Though women have been made the center of the abortion “issue” politically, the stories of family members of women who chose abortion, women and men who survived a mother’s attempted abortion, and the story of any life touched, no matter how seemingly distant, is worth hearing. There are some support groups for these individuals, but not enough. A striking element in many of the narratives recorded was—in some cases—how alone women felt in making their decisions (living under the impression that the father would not care) or—in other cases—how entitled women felt to the sole right to make their decisions (believing they are the only ones touched by the consequences). The more we can recognize and see the network of lives and communities touched by abortion, the more we can find ways to help support and heal those impacted.
- Prepare for any role necessary. By being open, helpful, trustworthy, and question-asking people, we may be planting seeds of friendship in the lives of someone who—finding herself in a moment of crisis—may come to us for help. By reacting to the crises of others with grace, with practical support, and with resourcefulness, we will make what seems impossible possible for a women dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. And by responding without judgment and with only the grace and love of the Gospel to the stories of those who have undergone abortions, we rightly acknowledge that no sin is too great for God to cover and that hope always hovers above us, goes behind us, and paves the way before us.
In short, I would challenge every pro-life individual to listen through these stories. Philosophically, ethically, and theologically abortion may make no sense to us, but listening to the voices of dozens and dozens of actual humans describe why they made the decision to take the life of their child will humanize the issue in a way that could fundamentally reorient how we think about and act on our convictions about abortion.
If the Christian desire to prevent future abortion lies in understanding the causes—the circumstances and thinking—that lead a woman to choose abortion, we can do no better than to hear the stories of those who have lived out the causes. Our hope in ministering to those who have experienced or whose lives have been touched by abortion is in de-stigmatizing the story-telling. This is not a concession or an endorsement of the horrific practice—and indeed, I assure you, some of the stories do horrify—rather it is a drawing out of the darkness into the light, a place where truth can be seen for what it is and dealt with in prayer, confronted fully for the reality it is and not the conceptual and political issue it has become.
Thank you so much for this!! We need more listeners and less talkers/shouters in the church.
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