When a friend tells you that they’ve had or are considering having an abortion, it can be hard to know what to say.
You don’t want to come across as judgmental or allow your opinions on reproductive rights to color your response. If you’ve had an abortion yourself ― and about 1 in 4 pregnancy-capable people have ― you may feel that you know what your friend is going through.
But the truth is, everyone’s journey through pregnancy is different, whether it ends in a baby, a loss or an abortion. Though you may want to share your experience ― or the experience of someone you know who had an abortion ― it’s far more valuable to just listen and find out what your friend specifically needs from you, says Kate White, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Boston University School of Medicine and author of “Your Guide to Miscarriage and Pregnancy Loss.
“I would say focus on what they’re feeling and what their needs are rather than trying to connect by talking about your own experiences,” she tells HuffPost. “Unless they ask, in which case share away!”
Don’t rush to problem solve. The opportunity to express and experience their emotions with someone they trust may be the cathartic release your friend needs right now. Or perhaps they need a ride to and from the clinic, especially if they get local anaesthesia. You don’t know what your friend truly needs from you until they express it themselves.
You should concentrate on listening but you’re likely not going to sit there silently the whole time. Below, White and other doctors and experts share the most helpful things you can say to your friend before their abortion, along with some comments that aren’t so helpful.
What not to say: “How does your partner/sexual partner feel about this?”
Whether it’s intentional or not, asking your friend what their partner’s opinion is on their abortion may give the impression that this isn’t their decision to make or that they can’t be trusted to make the right call for themselves, White says.
Every pregnant person should have the right to control their own reproduction, no matter what their partner thinks, the doctor said.
“In an ideal world, every pregnant person’s partner would be fully supportive of their decision to have an abortion. But that’s not the world we live in,” White says. “Some partners may disagree with this decision, but they’re not the ones who take on the risks and responsibilities of pregnancy.”
Some people may be afraid to even discuss the idea of pregnancy or abortion with their partner, fearing retaliation or abuse, so your best bet is to leave any discussion of their sexual partner out of it.
What to say instead: “Do you feel like you have enough support? How can I support you?”
Instead of specifically asking if their partner, parents or siblings are supportive, try to figure out how you can be supportive.
“You may be the only person that they’ve told they’re having an abortion,” White says. “Like all medical procedures, abortion can be tough to go through alone. Your friend may simply want you to know what they’re experiencing, or they may welcome more support from you in the form of conversations, hugs or just company.”
You can help your friend feel less alone by offering some practical help, White said: Offer to drive them to the clinic or doctor’s office or take them home, especially if they’re having a procedure with anaesthesia. Text while they’re in the waiting room or drop off food after the abortion if they’re not up to cooking.
“You can even walk their dog while they’re recovering,” she says. “Everyone needs something different during and after an abortion, and the only way you know how best you can help your friend is to ask.”
What not to say: “Why?” or “Have you thought about all your options?”
As an obstetrician-gynaecologist (OB-GYN)who provides abortion care, Nisha Verma, who’s also an adjunct assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta, sees people who have abortions for myriad reasons. Sometimes people choose to open up to her and share why they’re having an abortion, and, when they do, she’s always happy to listen and empathise with their experiences. Others aren’t so forthcoming, and that’s OK, too.
“I trust that every person is the expert on their own lives and is making the right decision for them and their loved ones,” she tells HuffPost. “I never ask someone to tell me why they are having an abortion because no one should have to provide us with a justification for their decision.”
Be a supportive, empathetic sounding board for your friend, just like Verma is with her patients. Don’t make someone feel pressured to share their rationale for their decision.
Avoid asking your friend if they’ve considered alternatives to abortion. That may make them feel as though you think they aren’t doing the right thing or aren’t capable of choosing what’s best for them, says Jennifer Johnsen, the vice president of digital programs at Power to Decide, a US organisation with programmes aimed at preventing teen and unplanned pregnancy.
“Even if you’re not 100% on board for whatever reason, remember that this person cared about and respected you enough to seek your support in this moment,” she says. “Honour their trust in you by keeping those ideas to yourself and just be the rock they need you to be.”
What to say instead: “You can tell me as much or as little as you want. Just know that I unequivocally support whatever decision you make.”
Don’t over-complicate things for yourself here. Once your friend has told you their plans, all you really need to say is, “You know I support you and your decisions,” and leave it at that, said Johana Oviedo, an OB-GYN in New York City.
“It’s important that as a friend you support their decision 100%, no questions asked. Your friend is the only person that knows what’s best for them,” Oviedo says.
What not to say: “I’m pro-choice, but I would never have an abortion myself.”
Unwanted pregnancies are stressful, and abortion care can often be time sensitive, especially in states where access is extremely limited. Now is definitely not the time to have a political debate or walk through how you hypothetically would handle being in a similar situation, says Courtney Chambers, the Texas advocacy director for Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.
“Statements like these take attention off your friend’s needs and reinforce abortion stigma,” she said. “People of all faiths, religions and walks of life want, need and use abortion care services.”
What to say instead: “If you need help with anything before, during or after your abortion, there are lots of resources.”
Instead of relaying your opinions or delving into the current abortion rights debate, give your friend actual helpful information. Most people don’t think about abortion until they need one, Chamber says, and because of that, they don’t know that there are organisations that exist to help people get the abortion care they need.
Additionally, Chamber says there are organisations that help people emotionally process their abortion experiences in a judgement- and stigma-free way, no matter how much time has elapsed since the abortion. If your friend is in need of that kind of help, look for it in your state.
What not to say: “This must be so hard” or “It’s no big deal. I know other people who have had an abortion and they’re fine.”
It’s critical to not make assumptions about another person’s abortion experience. Instead, give your friend space to share with you how they’re truly feeling. Maybe the experience has been hard, but it also may not have been, and that’s OK, Verma says.
“Someone may have really complicated feelings about their abortion and may be mourning the loss of a potential life they felt connected to, even though they know the abortion was the right decision,” she says. Or they “may feel like the decision was simple and may have felt no connection with the pregnancy and have no residual feelings about it at all. We don’t ever want to make someone feel guilty about having or not having particular feelings about their abortion experience.”
White added that the complication rate with abortions is extremely low, and the vast majority of people are emotionally fine after an abortion as well. “Having an abortion might not be a crisis for your friend,” she says.
The bottom line: avoid any statements that place certain feelings or emotions on them, says Josie Pinto, an executive director of the Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire.
“Sometimes people are holding conflicting feelings all at once, and it’s not our job to tell people how they should feel,” she tells HuffPost.
What to say instead: “How are you feeling right now?”
If you’re worried about the emotional effect this decision is having on your friend, asking “How are you feeling right now?” is a better conversation starter.
“This is a broad, wide-open question, and it’s like that on purpose,” says Jenn Conti, an OB-GYN in Menlo Park, California, and host of The V Word Podcast. “You can never assume you know why or how someone arrived at their decision to terminate a pregnancy, or how they’re even feeling about sharing,” she says. “This question is an invitation of support and an opportunity to just listen.”
What not to say: “Were you using birth control?” or “Haven’t you already had an abortion before?”
No one gets pregnant because they want to have an abortion. And no one knows at what point – or points – in their life they may need access to abortion care. None of us know what life will bring and why someone might need to have more than one abortion in their lifetime.
“Well-intentioned people often perpetuate the idea that one abortion is OK but more than one is somehow a moral failing,” Chamber says. “Don’t fall into this trap. It reinforces abortion stigma and shames anyone who has more than one abortion.”
And obviously any questions about birth control are truly unhelpful at this point.
What to say instead: “I’m so glad you were able to make a decision that felt right for you. I’m grateful you shared this with me, and however you’re feeling is valid.”
Again, this shows that you’re affirming their decision while not projecting your own thoughts onto the situation, Pinto says.
“It also acknowledges that there can be a variety of feelings that come up around abortion – sometimes all at once, sometimes changing over time,” she said. “It’s important to give space for that complexity and allow room for those feelings to change. Show your friend that you’ll be there with support regardless and that you’re grateful they’ve placed trust in you.”