Nonpolitical abortion hotline offers support to all sides

Health
A woman holds a cell phone. Quote bubbles read Hi, this is Amanda from Exhale, how may I support you tonight?

Mary Hall/NewsNation

Every day, people from all walks of life text in to an anonymous hotline aimed at giving nonjudgmental, nonpolitical support.

“It’s been 8 months since I had my abortion and it’s one of the biggest regrets of my life.” … “Abortion was actually the least problematic part of my abortion.” … “I’m still a Christian, but abortion is no longer some ugly sin anymore.”

These are words women have sent to the group Exhale Pro-Voice. It provides a safe space to talk about abortion for people with complicated feelings — like a religious person who made a choice against their beliefs, a pro-abortion advocate who feels guilt or grief, or a person who wants to support their partner but just feels angry.

Support workers like text line coordinator Angi Connell don’t judge, don’t pressure and don’t let politics intrude. 

“There is no reason to have extremism anymore,” Connell said. “There is a lack of emotional safety in a lot of spaces in this world. And that’s all we’re trying to bring.” 

Despite the politically divisive nature of the topic, a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most cases, according to a NewsNation poll taken just before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. 

Two-thirds say there should be a “middle ground” when it comes to abortion, according to Pew Research Center.

This gray area is where Susan Chorley and Aspen Baker, two of Exhale’s founders, found themselves in the years after their abortions. While Chorley was attending seminary, the pair met and connected over a shared story: They were raised within conservative religious communities where having an abortion is often secretive and isolating, but neither found politically neutral support in pro-abortion rights spaces. 

“We try to put people in boxes, and it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. It’s just caused this huge divide,” Chorley told CNN in 2017. Whether we like it or not, “abortion is happening among us, and it’s time we looked at it and talked about it.”

‘Do I think this was wrong?’

When Connell became pregnant while in a toxic relationship, she says having an abortion was the “best decision” for her. Yet she was surprised that it had such an impact on her perception of self.

“The abortion itself is a very clinical, physical act,” she said. “But then, for me, it was this interwoven tapestry of intimate partner violence and my own self-worth — trying to navigate even like my spiritual and religious ideology, like, ‘Do I think this was wrong?’”

Many of the people they speak to are asking that question, she says.

“There are people that are going to go through abortion experiences that absolutely think abortion should be illegal,” Connell said. “Exhale is the space that holds space for whatever you’re going through.” 

The workers, who are all volunteers, go through 40 to 60 hours of training that includes basic counseling skills, role-playing and on-the-job training. Volunteers also receive training on suicide prevention and domestic violence safety, two issues that can overlap with those who’ve had abortions and experience stigma. 

When someone uses the line, their text can go to any of the workers online. Everything is completely anonymous, so the support workers know nothing except what the texter tells them. Sometimes conversations go on for hours that way; other times people get interrupted by their everyday life.

The goal is to meet the person in a way that’s appropriate for their identity, said Rachel Dyer, Exhale’s executive director. Because of that, they recruit volunteers from different races, faiths and geographies.

Connell recalls texting an artist who was still grieving a year later after an abortion that she hadn’t wanted but felt forced into by a partner. She had stopped drawing.

“I said, ‘When you have felt this way, where things feel like overwhelming and underwhelming and mixed up and completely confused and chaotic, what did you do before?'” Connell remembers asking the artist to try to paint her emotions. “I hope one day, if she ever reaches out again, that I get the beautiful landscapes that she wanted to do.”

Still, Dyer stresses that these workers are not professionals, and some people need longer-term solutions.

“We know that (not all) people who have abortions (are) activists,” Dyer said. “We are going to send empathy and care in that particular person’s context and culture and faith and political affiliation, even if it’s a little bit flexible and squishy as they’re trying to make meaning of this new experience.” 

Thousands have texted in since 2000. Since the Supreme Court decision, usage has gone up almost 300%, Dyer said. And while the anonymous nature of the service means they don’t keep hard data on outcomes, those who fill out a post-counseling survey report that the hotline is helpful.

“Often how we approach it is by making a reflection or an observation, basically. … ‘I can hear the conflict that you’re experiencing. I can hear how painful this is, but this feels so counter to how you viewed yourself in the world,” she said. “It’s never just the abortion; it’s always the context.”

Connell says the hotline’s goal is to help the texter figure out what healing or resolution looks like to them.

“It’s almost like if we could give everybody a journal, and they could just write everything and then go burn it — that’s kind of like the text line,” she said.

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