Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guest post: Caring for the Ones Who Never Call

I'm incredibly pleased to introduce a guest writer today. Amy Littlefield is a former abortion counselor and founder of The Provider Project: Stories From the Abortion-Providing Community, an excellent and groundbreaking endeavor that really strikes a chord with our own blog's founding mission.

Stay tuned to the Provider Project, where Amy's piece is cross-posted, and you might see an Abortioneers post there soon!


Amy Littlefield

Caring for the Ones Who Never Call

It can be a scary prospect to call up an abortion clinic and make an appointment for what has become one of our society's most stigmatized -- and yet one of its most common -- medical procedures.

Which is probably why some patients don't immediately admit that's why they're calling.

As a former phone counselor at a clinic, I used to hear a lot of: "Um...I wanted to know how much it costs?" and "Hi...I'm looking for some information about...abortion?"

(This last one was spoken as a question, with the word "abortion" issued in a whisper, like a big, bad, ugly secret.)

I sometimes tried to use the word as much as possible when I answered those tentative calls.

"I would be happy to answer any questions you have about ABORTION! What type of ABORTION do you think you might be interested in having?"

Often, these patients weren’t simply calling for information; they knew they wanted an abortion, but they were scared and confused about what the process might entail.

I sometimes felt like women called just to test us out. Maybe they had always believed abortion was murder and they wanted to know whether we would tell them what they were doing was wrong or try to make them feel guilty. Maybe they were wondering whether the women who worked in the Big, Bad Baby-Killing Center were human beings like them. Many were scared they wouldn't be able to have children in the future, or that we would do something violent and terrible to remove their unwanted pregnancies.

They were certain we would judge them, just as others in their life had judged them. They were wondering whether they could trust us with their stories.

They ached to justify themselves.

"Look, I have to do this, I have a nine-month-old at home."

"I'm homeless and I already have two kids."

"I've never believed in abortion, but I just can't have a baby right now."

I was sometimes amazed at how relieved women were to tell their stories. To a stranger. Over the phone. And to have that stranger accept their stories Without judgment. Without telling them what was right and what was wrong. So listening became part of the process of making an appointment. When I finished booking the appointment and asked if they had any other questions, I could sometimes hear the relief in their voices.

Given how terrifying that first step can be for many patients, I often wondered how many women wanted to call, but never did.

The abortion rate has been declining among almost all groups of women across the country (although a recent study [pdf] showed that the global abortion rate has stalled after a period of decline). Many in the abortion-providing community believe this decline is a result of rising stigma, not of improved access to birth control or sex education (since, by and large, those things are not improving). Nor is it happening because women's economic situations have magically improved, since the abortion rate is still rising among poor women (which proves, by the way, that you can't advocate for reproductive justice without combating capitalist exploitation of the poor).

Brigit Ordway, a veteran counselor whom I interviewed as part of an audio project compiling voices from the abortion-providing community told me she thinks women face more stigma now than they did back in the decade or so after it was legalized.

She said:

"That's the biggest difference now -- women aren't telling each other about this. We all did and we got support, for the most part. Now, probably most women would get support from their friends and family, but they’re assuming that they won't. They're assuming that everybody is not pro-choice and that they're going to be judged and maybe even worse, you know, maybe somebody's going to come throw something at them. So women are silent about it now. They don't get the support of each other or society, because they don't talk about it, I think. It's a huge difference. It's all now secret and shameful for people."

So abortion counseling, for me, whether it was done on the phone or in person, became largely about trying to lift the burden of guilt that women thought they were obligated to feel for having an abortion. It was about helping them realize that they were still good, still loving, still worthy of respect. They drove past protesters and graphic posters of chopped-up babies to get into the clinic, but once they were inside, they were treated with respect.

Every so often we would get a call from a woman who wanted to come to the clinic, but couldn't bring herself to enter the doors after she saw the protesters' signs. Those women reminded me how limited my understanding of abortion is. I saw women who were beating themselves up emotionally for having an abortion they felt was necessary. But I never saw the women who were too scared to come in, too scared to even call.

One abortion provider whom I interviewed has found a way to help those women.

Dr. Deborah Oyer, who owns a clinic in Seattle, Washington, created a series of videos describing the process of an abortion at her clinic. In a soothing and straightforward voice, she describes the steps a patient goes through, from the moment she enters the door until she leaves. This is the kind of education I tried to do with patients over the phone -- but she has found a way to do it without requiring women to take that scary first step. Instead, wrapped in the Internet's comfy blanket of anonymity, they can learn that abortion is not as scary as they might have imagined.

The videos provide basic education about abortion and birth control that counteract common and harmful myths. They also show women that -- contrary to popular mythology -- the doctor who will be performing their abortion is a friendly and approachable woman, not a crazy, rabid devil-monster with horns (Oyer told me she often sees women relax visibly after she enters the room, since she is so un-monsterlike). She has one video that consists entirely of her introducing herself. That video, uploaded two years ago, has 550 views on YouTube.

The video about surgical abortion has 58,816.

The one on medication abortion has 27,668.

Clearly, people need this information.

I'm grateful to Deborah Oyer for putting her voice and face out there, despite the risks that it could mean for her in a world where abortion providers are targeted with hate speech and harassment, and even sometimes with bullets. I'm grateful that there is accurate information out there about abortion for everyone -- of every gender -- who wonders how it is done. But I’m especially grateful that there is education for the patients whom I never got to talk to -- for the ones who never call.

Listen to Deborah Oyer discussing the videos at The Provider Project,


  1. Fantastic post, Amy, and amazing work on the Provider Project!

  2. Thanks for the's nice to have a fresh voice on the blog!

  3. I am oh so familiar with the vague questions about "that procedure" and alternatively the since of relief in someone's voice when you take control of the phone call so they will never have to actually say the word abortion. Some times when I'm on the phone with a patient I can tell my the sounds they are at work or in public and don't want to expose there business, very likely because people will judge them. Its great to have this information available on the interwebs!

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone! Wow, so happy to be posting with the Abortioneers...

  5. Fantastic, and I hope our dear readers take advantage of these resources!

    Dr. Tiller also had a video explaining his late term procedure, which he specifically referred to as "preterm delivery of a stillborn under twilight anesthesia" in order to normalize the concept. But this was shown to patients while at the clinic, as I remember, so it also didn't reach the fence-riders. Can't find a clip on YouTube, but I think it's a great way to reach out to patients.

  6. Nice post :) I have a question about this...In your experience, did these patients shed their reluctance to use the word abortion (or discuss the abortion directly) when they were in the "safe zone" of the counseling room? Or do you feel like many still felt burdened by the same things as when they called?

  7. Welcome to the Abortioneers!!! So happy to have you, and great post!!

  8. That's a good question, R. I actually did find patients opened up more in the counseling room. Once they were in the room with me, they had already summoned the courage to enter the clinic, walk past the protesters, and announce the reason for their visit. By that point, many women were eager to discuss the stigma against abortion and their feelings about it...although some were still hesitant to use "the word." But there's something about that initial encounter with the clinic, I think, that is especially nerve-wracking -- especially, as placenta sandwich notes, if the woman happens to be in the bathroom at work when she calls...

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