How to support your friend who just got an abortion
On January 22nd, 1973, landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationally. Today, we still fight to keep abortion legal, and the common procedure is already effectively banned in various states. On the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a contributor shares her experience supporting a friend during an abortion so that you know how to support your own friends exercising their right to choose.
Chances are that you’ve comforted close friends through breakups, through body image struggles, through family drama, and more. Reminding your best friend that she’s amazing and her ex doesn’t deserve her is one thing; comforting her before, during, or after her abortion is another. Even if you completely support your friend’s decision to get an abortion, being the friend she needs during the process can be more complicated than you’d think.
I’m always the one my friends go to for boy advice, and I’m quick to share some motivational words of wisdom. But when one of my close friends got pregnant unexpectedly and chose to get an abortion, I found myself unsure of what she wanted to hear. Did she want me to laugh with her while she cracked somewhat taboo, self-deprecating jokes? Did she want me to keep asking how she was doing—or was that annoying? Did she want me to never speak about it again?
We’re lucky that women continue to have the right to choose what happens within their own bodies—especially when Roe is under attack. We’re also lucky to have friends who will be there for us through thick and thin. If your friend is making the decision to have an abortion, heading to the clinic, or experiencing after-effects, here are some tips on how to be the friend she needs.
1It’s okay if you don’t know what to say—your presence is enough.
If you’re like me, then you get really nervous when comforting people because you don’t want to say the wrong thing. You might feel so overwhelmed that you choose not to reach out at all. Don’t make this mistake! Chances are that she doesn’t expect you to say the right things (or anything at all)—she simply just wants some support. A hand to hold or a friend to sit with while she experiences some of the physical and/or emotional after-effects of the procedure.
“It was so important I had someone physically with me, although I didn’t want to talk,” said Nikki, 21. “They didn’t judge me, they just sat with me and shared the experience with me so I didn’t have to face it alone.”
Bernadette Padfield, a UK-based counselor who specializes in post-abortion counseling, also stresses the importance of being there physically and simply listening. “Nobody can make the decision for her,” she said. “It [can be] a very lonely place to be, and as her friend, just being there physically is about all you can do.”
While it’s certainly nowhere near the same thing, remember how you liked to be comforted during your most heart-wrenching breakup. Sure, at times, it may have been fun to hear your friends talk shit about your ex and say you’re better off without him, but what you really needed was a friend to be physically with you so that you didn’t need to be alone. Or just someone to listen to you unpack your feelings.
2A simple text or call can mean a lot.
Even if you can’t be there for your friend physically (although you should certainly try to be), a call or text can go a long way. “Because I had reached out to several close friends letting them know what was going on, I had a lot of people check in on me on the day of the actual abortion,” said Kelly, a young woman I spoke to. “Just a simple text of call meant a great deal to me.”
If you really want to go the extra mile to put a smile on their face, flower deliveries and get well soon cards are appreciated on any occasion. But keep things discreet so they don’t have to explain to their unassuming parents why they’re receiving a “get well soon” card on a random Tuesday.
3Don’t give unsolicited advice. If this was an emotional experience for your friend, even some encouraging cliches can be frustrating to hear.
Abortion is such an individual experience. Some people feel pure relief after the procedure. Others’ relief may be mixed with confusion or sadness. Even when your friend doesn’t regret the procedure, she may be very upset and feel that she is mourning a loss. And these are just a few examples of emotions one can experience in this situation. Bernadette suggests holding off on phrases like “you know it’s for the best” until the procedure is far enough in the past. Even when the actual abortion may be over in your eyes, your friend may still be in the throes of emotional turmoil.
“All you can do is stay with her,” Bernadette says. “Walk with her, not ahead or behind, but by her side, patiently…Yes, it may have been the right decision, but why can’t she talk about it? No, she doesn’t regret it, but why does she feel bad? Again, do not judge. These are her feelings. Be there and listen…so she may find her own way forward.”
4Be ready to laugh with her (and watch some Netflix together) when she needs it.
This article may seem a little serious, but that’s because abortion health care is a serious (and sensitive) topic. That being said, there might be certain times during the process when your friend will just want to laugh. Many people use humor as a coping mechanism, and even though her jokes may be a bit taboo, she trusts you to not judge her for making her situation feel more lighthearted.
“After [my abortion], I needed someone to talk to about how I felt [and someone to] then make me laugh,” said Nikki. “I’m so lucky I got that.”
Of course, we all have those jokes that are okay when we make them about ourselves, but are offensive when someone else makes them about us (cue Janis Ian‘s “That’s only okay when I say it!”). While your friend will certainly want you to laugh along with her, let her be the one to crack the jokes about her situation. That way, you won’t accidentally say something hurtful.
5Respect her privacy.
Your friend may want her abortion to stay on the down low. You should feel honored that you were one of the few people to whom she chose to disclose her situation. One major mistake I made after my friend’s abortion? Talking about it with a guy I was dating at the time.
Because my friend normally doesn’t like to keep things secret, and because the guy I was dating had never met her, and because abortion isn’t shameful, I didn’t think it was a big deal. Looking back, I realize how rude and insensitive it was for me to share a private matter that wasn’t mine to tell—and she told me that my actions hurt her.
Now it seems so intuitive to not share these private details with someone else. But if your friend doesn’t take anything too seriously, then you might assume that she doesn’t view her abortion as a “big deal.” In reality, she might be trying to keep things light only to help herself cope with the situation, and that’s her right.
To be safe and to respect your friend’s autonomy, you should assume that you’re one of the only people to have been told about the abortion—then keep it confidential. Abortion is not a shameful secret, but it is up to her when, how, and if she chooses to shout her abortion.
6When in doubt—ask her!
You may think that you know your friend well enough to understand how she wants to be treated in these moments. However, you might have never supported her through an abortion or health care problem before; you may not actually know what to do—and that’s okay. The good news is that if she is telling you about the abortion, you’re likely close enough with her to simply ask what she needs from you during this time.
Every woman is different, every body is different, and every abortion is different. While some women will go back to their normal life the next day, other women might be dealing with emotions for days, weeks, or months down the road. Asking your friend if there’s anything you can do for her or errands you can run for her is a great start. You can also ask questions like, “Do you want to talk about it? Or would you rather me distract you?” A simple, “How do you feel about it?” can be just what your friend needs to really explore her own emotions, if she needs help navigating them.
“I guess having a good spectrum of friends is important,” said Kelly. “Someone who will indulge your irrationalities and fears just by listening, but also someone who will shake you by the shoulders, saying, ‘Get a fucking grip.’”