color photograph of a young woman doing a video call/filming/taking photos of the family toasting on Christmas dinner at home
(via iStock)

Heading home for the holidays can bring all the feelings: joy, exhaustion, excitement, overwhelm, stress, and comfort. And even in the best circumstances, worries about which invasive questions you’ll be asked and which topics of political fervor will spur intense conversations are real. The constant need to decide how much energy to exert in a debate can be frustrating, tugging at your heart and deepest-held values even though protecting your mental health comes first. Maybe you’re considering whether you want to share that the biggest moment for you this year was your abortion, or you’re gearing up to ask everyone to donate to your favorite abortion fund in lieu of gifts this year. Perhaps you’re preparing for abortion to come up at the dinner table, office parties, or get-togethers at the local bar with all the people from high school you never wanted to see again. It can be a lot, even in the most pro-choice families, because abortion—and abortion stigma—is everywhere.

Abortion is on the front page of the news now more than ever. Following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, a cascade of trigger bans and an ongoing fight for expanded awareness and access to self-managed abortion with pills, you may find yourself in a stressful, uncomfortable, or intimidating conversation. Sometimes it’s easier to debate fervent anti-abortion relatives because we’re so used to dealing with white supremacist lies and misogyny. And in the awkward tension of any holiday get-together, it can be tempting to let it slide when someone makes a misinformed, but not malicious, comment too: those “I’m pro-choice, but” comments or the ones that come with good intentions but might be riddled with stigma and preferences for “good abortions” over others.

While it may feel easier to skip conversations with people who aren’t totally against abortion but still say things that shame people who have abortions, these are actually some of the most important conversations to have. 

People who express conditional support for abortion and who moralize between “good” and “bad” abortions—such as stigmatizing abortions that are self-managed or occur later in pregnancy—contribute to the stigma that creates the environment for all abortion bans to flourish. That’s how we got to this moment in the first place. And to get out of it, we have to do the deep work of challenging pro-choice abortion stigma.

This is something we all deal with. I still have to challenge some family members on their language and discomfort around later abortions and multiple abortions. Making progress through conversations with loved ones who have problematic opinions is rarely easy, but it’s the core work that we have to do to protect abortion access for everyone.

When you’re inevitably faced with a friend or loved one uttering the phrase “I’m pro-choice, but … ” here are some suggestions on what to say next. 

Start with the basics and emphasize positive values. Remind your friends and family that everyone loves someone who had abortions. Abortion is health care, and everybody deserves access to quality health care, no matter their age, race, gender identity, ability, economic status, immigration status, or where they live. Restrictions on abortion are racist and classist and don’t reflect our values. Abortion is an important part of overall reproductive health care, just like birth control or fertility treatments, and is a common medical procedure. Everyone deserves the right to choose if, when, and how to start a family, and nobody should have to explain or justify their reasons for getting an abortion. 

If things start to feel dicey, shut down stigma and get back to the point. To redirect a conversation you can use phrases like “that’s a common misconception, but the truth is … ” or “if you want to keep talking about this, you need to hear me when I say … .” You can express that you are grateful a loved one’s willing to participate in this conversation without letting them sound off unchecked.

Call people out when they say something hurtful or wrong. Watch out for common mistakes. Be kind, but firm, when you explain why conditional support for abortion isn’t real support. Here’s what these conversations can look like, and can include the key phrases above. 

For example, if someone says “I’m pro-choice, but that’s too far along. Late-term abortions are different,” you can explain that “late-term abortions” aren’t a thing—even the Associated Press says so. Every pregnancy is different, and people should be able to consult with their health care providers about what they need at any point in a pregnancy. Just like abortions earlier in pregnancy, abortions later in pregnancy happen for a lot of reasons. In fact, abortion bans make it more challenging for people to obtain care as soon as they decide they want an abortion.

If someone says “I’m pro-choice, but only if a doctor says it’s necessary,” you can say you believe that people should be able to make their own decisions about their health care. Doctors can help sometimes—nurses and midwives too—but at the end of the day, don’t you want to be the one in charge of your own body and your own future? They don’t know your life. 

If someone says “I’m pro-choice, but you shouldn’t be celebrating abortion. We should try to reduce abortions and make it only a last resort if birth control fails or if it’s something extreme like rape,” you can say that there’s no shame in getting health care that you need. We should never judge anyone’s reasons for having abortions, and we should honor the courage it takes to say “I had an abortion” aloud. We want people to be able to talk about their abortions and celebrate them if they’d like. Everybody’s living their own journey, and they don’t deserve judgment for sharing their stories. They should be met unapologetically with love and support. Try modeling that for your family if someone decides to share their abortion stories at the dinner table.

Ultimately, you know your loved ones best of all. Think about what you want to say to them. Think about how and when you want to bring the conversation up and take a breath if the conversation becomes challenging. Remember why you love this person and why you believe they can be a better ally with some help. And remind them that they love someone who had abortions, perhaps someone sitting at the table, and likely in the very circumstances they’re talking about. 

Make it your pre-New Year’s resolution this holiday season to talk about abortion with your family. If you need some help, we’ve got your back at We Testify at ProChoiceBut.org. Next year will be the first full year since Roe was overturned, and it’s more important than ever to help your friends and family see why we must loudly and unapologetically support all abortions. Because at the end of the day, everyone loves someone who has had an abortion.

Renee Bracey Sherman

Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist, abortion storyteller, and writer. She is the founder and executive director of We Testify, an organization dedicated to the leadership and representation...