An unwanted pregnancy can lead to a number of difficult choices: Do you keep it? If so, how will that affect your life? If not, what will you do? Will you get an abortion or give the baby up for adoption? The sheer number of considerations can be overwhelming, and many people will turn to their support system for advice—often, a close friend.
But what do you do if you're that friend? Most of us are not trained to handle a situation like this, and it can be difficult to provide the emotional support our friend needs.
Gillian Dean, M.D., senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and Casey Swartz, a licensed mental health counselor and former director of counseling at Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh, offer their expert opinions on how to support a friend going through an abortion.
Don't assume or judge
"The most important thing to keep in mind when someone you know has an unintended pregnancy is not to make any assumptions," Dean said. "Your friend may lean on you to help them with their decision—or they might know exactly what they need to do. You can support them either way."
It is not your job to make assumptions about your friend's use of birth control or the choice they're going to make. As a friend, your job is to be supportive in whatever way your friend needs. "Sometimes, deciding what to do about an unintended pregnancy is straightforward," Dean continued. "Other times, it's difficult or complicated. Your friend's decision is very personal—and every situation is different—so the best thing you can do is support whatever they decide."
Your personal biases, beliefs and opinions aren't your friend's, and it might turn out that their beliefs don't align with yours, but now is not the time nor the place for a confrontation on personal opinions. If someone is coming to you for support in a difficult situation, the last thing they need is to face scrutiny, judgment or backlash for their choice. While your lives may overlap, they are not the same.
In Swartz's experience, "Clients who have nonjudgmental, emotionally healthy and supportive persons around them tend to cope better than those who don't have people they can talk to or feel emotionally or physically unsafe around."
A stigma surrounding abortion exists in many parts of the country, alongside regulatory laws and economic inequalities limiting abortion for many women. In regions where women can make that decision for themselves, it is a gift.
"Reminding your friend that they have options may help alleviate some anxiety or stress they have in making a decision about their pregnancy," said Dean.
Offer to be by their side, but don't overstep your bounds
There is a ton of available information on safe, legal abortions. Despite that, there are also going to be people who will make baseless claims about the impact of legal abortion. For example, some people claim that going through with an abortion can create severe symptoms of depression in women, but studies have shown that to be false in many cases. In fact, women who were denied an abortion experienced worse symptoms of anxiety and lower self-esteem compared to women who successfully had an abortion.
"Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures performed in the United States," Dean pointed out. "In fact, data shows that abortion—both in-clinic and medication abortion—has over a 99 percent safety record."
Helping your friend find accurate information "can help them make the decision that's best for their circumstances and enable them to take care of their health and well-being," Dean continued. "It should not be provided with the intent of coercing, shaming or judging their decision." Your local health center should offer nonjudgmental and accurate information so your friend can make an informed decision about their pregnancy.
'Clients who have nonjudgmental, emotionally healthy and supportive persons around them tend to cope better than those who don't have people they can talk to or feel emotionally or physically unsafe around.'
That being said, don't immediately start throwing information and facts at your friends. Swartz is quick to caution that "unless someone is specifically asking for your advice on something, don't give it. Oftentimes, when we're going through something tough, we want to be heard and validated in our experiences, not told what to do.
"We often want to fix problems and offer solutions when friends are hurting," she continued. "But again, feeling heard is usually more helpful in the end. If someone is sharing with you that they've had an abortion, it usually means that they trust you. Honor that trust by actively listening to what they're sharing and asking how you can be most helpful to them."
In other words: Empathy is a valuable skill.
Things to avoid and final thoughts
Not every person is trained to handle emotionally difficult situations, but a good rule of thumb is to treat your friend empathetically and with respect.
For those who find it difficult to offer the support a friend needs, either for religious reasons or personal ones, Swartz said to "avoid anything that is steeped in shame, blame or guilt. If you know that you are not able to offer nonjudgmental support for this person, it's okay to say something like, 'I'm not sure I'm the right support person for you right now. But I really care about you and want to help you find someone who is.'"
Swartz also suggests showing your friend post-abortion hotlines or websites, such as Exhaleprovoice.org. There are also forums and groups that your friend can reach out to for additional support, and, if necessary, suggest your friend talk to a professional. Swartz does caution, however, to watch out for organizations and websites that "appear unbiased but aim to persuade you in your decision-making or make you feel bad after having an abortion."
As a final word of advice, she said, "No one should ever pressure you into a decision about a pregnancy or make you feel bad about the choice you've made. Unintended pregnancy is stressful enough. You deserve to feel supported no matter what."
Abortion is a medical procedure that is currently illegal or restricted in some portions of the United States. For more information about the legality of abortion in your area, please consult a local healthcare provider.