The Key to Culture Change Is Coming Straight From the Heart

The work to end abortion stigma must be constructed from the inside out.

The work to end abortion stigma must be constructed from the inside out. Shutterstock

In my research about stigma around abortion and other reproductive experiences, I’m often struck with how “in my head” I can be about such sensitive and personal issues. I love geeking out on sociological and psychological theory: exploring social norms, cultural taboos, prejudice, and stigma across multiple levels of culture. The intellectual side of me always wonders: How did our culture get here? And how can we change? However, at a recent staff retreat, a colleague asked us to reflect on what motivates us to do culture change and I found myself telling a new group of people about my father.

Growing up, I was very close to my dad. We both loved singing, throwing a football, cracking jokes, and watching movies. He introduced me to great music, including Heart, Queen, The Doors, The Beatles, Carly Simon, and Stevie Nicks. He had a mischievous sense of humor. For example, when my older brother and I would misbehave by lying or leaving our wet towels on the floor, my dad would tell us the story of our long lost siblings “Loretta” and “Edgar” who had done just the same things before they mysteriously disappeared. He took us to countless dollar movies and encouraged us to sing with him at a local piano bar. He pushed me to be an independent, social, and fearless person. For many people I know, these details will seem incongruent with the fact that my father is an evangelical Christian minister.

Although Christianity was the foundation of my upbringing, I don’t think I became aware that my father was opposed to abortion until high school. By this time, things had really changed. My parents divorced, my father was not preaching full-time, but was teaching English at a local high school. On one “Divorced Dad Weekend,” our conversation turned to the issue of abortion and, as it turned out, my father was very strongly opposed. I was honestly surprised by his feelings, but our conversation was respectful. If anything, it was just another experience with my dad where, despite my age, I felt encouraged to be an independent-minded and outspoken person.

Just after college, I began working at the National Abortion Federation on their hotline helping women seek abortion services. Remembering the conversation we’d had in high school, I was worried about sharing the news of my new job with my father. Even telling him the name of the organization I worked for made me uneasy. A few months in, I worked up the nerve to speak with my dad about my work. He was driving me back to the Metro after a dinner at his house and I went for it. I told him about the women who called our hotline and how stressed they were about meeting the needs of their families. I told him about how incredibly expensive it was to have an abortion and how far women had to travel to get one. I told him I was honored to be there for women at such a difficult time and that I was proud of what I was doing to help.

Dad listened thoughtfully, but surprised me with his response. He was still opposed to abortion but he offered that it was one of the great “moral dilemmas” of our time. He said that many families will have people on either side and that we must love each other despite our differences of opinion. I remember him looking out the windshield of the car as he spoke about how differences on the issue of abortion reminded him of families who were divided by the Civil War. As we hugged good-bye I wondered, uneasily, which side he was identifying with in that metaphor.

A few years later, when I began my master of public health (MPH) program at UC Berkeley, my father called me on the phone saying he wanted to talk to me about something important. He explained that he was struggling with something. He told me he could not be proud of my graduate work because I was attending a liberal university and intended to apply my education to the spread of abortion throughout the world. I asked him what happened to his belief in maintaining relationship across conflict and “the great moral dilemma” speech. He said, with a great deal of sadness, “What would you do if your child was a Nazi?” Shocked, I tried to explain that I was interested in researching women’s experiences with abortion, experiences which happen whether he and I are in conflict about it or not. He said, “I would rather you have become a stripper.”

Almost ten years have come and gone since that phone call, and I can count on one hand the conversations my father and I have had since then. We met briefly and awkwardly in a public park after the birth of my first daughter, who is now 5 years old. He has never met or seen my second daughter who turned 3 this past April. With every Christmas, birthday, and Father’s Day that goes by, I feel a tug of guilt for not reaching out and simultaneously the stomach dropping sensation of rejection. The other day, I was intervening in a fight between my daughters over a doll. “You know,” I said mischievously. “You used to have two sisters who fought over dolls like this … and one day they mysteriously disappeared.” Of course they loved it; it broke up their fight, and they demanded to know more about their long-lost sisters “Laverne” and “Shirley,” and all the naughty things they had done.  Despite the pain of the last ten years of conflict and rejection, I still wanted to call my dad.

After speaking my story to our small group of staff, I realized something. I have a lot of compassion for my father in this story. I know that he’s tortured by my decision to make a career focusing on abortion. I know that he wants to love me and have a relationship with me, my husband, and our children. I also have compassion for myself. I believe I am doing what is right according to my own values. I also love my father, but I have decided not to sacrifice my career for that relationship. Knowing that I can’t change my father or myself, I have turned my attention to changing something else: the culture.

I want to live in a world where people who hold different values and beliefs from one another can still experience love, connection, and belonging.

The intensity of the culture war around abortion creates oceans of stories like mine. I’ve spoken to abortion providers who are more concerned with the love and acceptance from their parents than the daily picketing outside their clinic. I’ve spoken with women who keep their abortions completely secret rather than putting a parent through the difficulty of knowing their daughter is a “sinner.” Ash Beckham reflects on the universality of being closeted about our experiences in her TED Talk, saying:

Hard is not relative. Hard is hard. Who can tell me that explaining to someone that you just declared bankruptcy is harder than telling someone you just cheated on them? Who can tell me that his coming out story is harder than telling your 5-year-old that you’re getting a divorce? There is no harder. There is just hard.

The truth is that the many of us find our motivation for culture change in our own personal experiences. Luckily we don’t have to divide ourselves in half to make change happen. More and more, research is finding that long-term attitude and behavior change doesn’t come from our heads, it comes from opening our hearts, acknowledging hurt, and being in touch with our own vulnerability. My relationship with my dad helps me to empathize with anyone who has shared an abortion experience with a family member, only to be dehumanized and rejected. By exploring my own vulnerability I improve my capacity for empathy. In the end, culture change can’t be delivered to us only through social marketing or social media. It won’t be motivated by other people’s experiences. Instead, the long-term change we seek will happen by exploring our own hurt places and addressing our own habits and behaviors when we’re confronted with stigma and prejudice. The work to end abortion stigma must be constructed from the inside out.