Every year, in celebration of International Women's Day, we support a nonprofit organization who supports women and gender equity by interviewing and sharing their inspiring stories with our communities. This year, I had the honour to interview Lisa Rowe, CEO of Support After Abortion.
We learned about their mission through our annual event, #Empower, which is a full-day, virtual event designed specifically for nonprofits and charities. It is our biggest give-back initiative given that the full-day conference pass is completely complimentary. #Empower2022 took place in January and the Support After Abortion team reached out to us to be part of the event as one of our partners.
During the course of the event preparation, we learned about their important work in detail and were touched and inspired by their story and dedication to their mission. We didn't have to think twice to choose their story to showcase in celebration of International Women's Day 2022.
Rapid technological advancement and its impact, both good and bad; social injustice; environmental disasters; the pandemic; warfare - given all of these happening all around us, lately I've been thinking a lot about what it really means to be human. And I had an "aha!" moment during my fireside chat with Lisa.
Pain + Perspective = Purpose
Doesn't this equation say so much about being human? We go through physical and emotional pain as long as we are alive. We are however still capable of having our personal perspective instead of giving in and giving up. And from there our purpose is born.
It was such an honour to spend time with Lisa. We absolutely cheer for her and Support After Abortion’s mission. Here is our chat:
Mihae: Please tell us about your journey so far.
Lisa: I would be remiss to not go back in time to begin where I kind of feel like maybe a lot of
this was generated and where my womanhood was established. So, I was raised in a family that on the outside looked like it had it all together but on the inside was very broken.
My dad to this day continues to struggle with alcoholism and my sister has followed in his footsteps. My mom protected me and my sister at the time from my dad's alcoholism and that's what established the codependency. She made everything look really good and made it all look really great on the outside to everybody else. But in all reality, there was tons of brokenness behind the scenes and at one point she just said “I can't do this anymore” and she and my dad divorced.
It was an ugly divorce battle, and that was my first introduction to really understand trauma and to understand the devastation and I began creating narratives around that. I began to feel like their divorce was my fault. I began to take on responsibilities that didn't belong to me. Being the oldest, I felt like I needed to take care of my sister, that I needed to perform to get my parents attention.
And so, fast forward into my early adolescence, I began looking for the love that hadn't ever been repaired after my parents divorced and that love came in the form of boyfriends. At 15 years old I started dating my first boyfriend, became sexually active and quickly became a chameleon in that relationship. I adapted to everything he liked to do, lost everything I really liked to do, and I didn't know it at the time, but I was evolving and becoming all that I ever knew - my mom. I became more and more codependent, and I went from one relationship to the next until I finally married.
I distinctively remember at 27 years old; we had got married and had our first daughter, I was sitting on my daughter's bed, and my now ex-husband said, “Lisa, I've been cheating on you, and I don't know what we're going to do.” And I did what I felt like all the movies told me to do, I said, “well then you can't live here, you have to leave.” But the kicker was that I was unexpectedly pregnant with my second daughter, and he didn't tell me the whole story. There were many other women. And you know, dating back to that codependency and how it evolved through these relationships, I was camouflaged to him.
I didn't know who I was outside of that marriage. I didn't know who I was on the weekends without a husband. He wasn't living with me, and I was pregnant with our second daughter, and I was desperate. I began searching for anything and everything that I could to feel better because I couldn't handle the pain and I couldn't cope in the way that I had coped before - running after another man. I was pregnant, I just couldn't do those same things.
So, long story short, I started my own healing journey and I remember my first therapist saying to me as she was sitting across the room from me, and she said, “Lisa a lot of times there are red flags in relationships like this. You know? Where did you miss your red flags?” And I just wanted to plunge over from the sofa to her and say, “who do you think you are? I'm a master’s degree clinician. I have all these accolades.” And sure enough, she was right.
There were tons of red flags. I only learned them through my healing journey, but what I learned was that because those red flags were presented as normal in my childhood, I couldn't see them for the red flags that they were in my adult life. I made really bad decisions as a result. But I always had this passion for helping women in their journey. Even though I didn't know how broken I was or how dysfunctional my childhood was till I got to be about 30, I still knew that I wanted to help people. I didn't want them to experience the things that I had experienced.
And meanwhile, I was excelling in my professional life, I was the teen parent program director at our local high school. I then worked with sex trafficking survivors in a residential program. Then I moved on to our pregnancy center and that's where I learned about abortion. I never had anybody talk to me about abortion while I was growing up. I never had friends that freely discussed their abortion experiences, or even any family members talked about it. And you know what I learned as a clinician in these spaces is that as nobody talked to me about it, I never talked about it. And there were many women along my journey that if I had asked, would have felt invited to share.
But what I learned in this journey is that I thought I was the one person experiencing this, but I am very common, and most people don't know how to talk about abortion. Most people relate abortion to politics or religion. They don't look at the human behind the abortion experience.
I was invited into that space through my journey and that's why I'm here today. Many women have shared their stories with me and it's not fair just because our world has politicized the abortion issue and even connected it to religion, that they don't feel safe to reach out. I feel like because of the healing experiences I've been able to journey through, the understanding of early childhood trauma, I was one decision away from an abortion experience when I had my unexpected pregnancy and my husband cheating.
This made me realize that we are so much more like the women that have experienced abortion than we even realize. But because the way the narrative has been created, we forget that real people are behind this. And that's why I'm here today, serving in this role, and I'm just grateful that you would ask me this amazing question. Thank you.
Mihae: Please tell us about Support After Abortion.
Lisa: We were established as our own non-profit in April of 2020. We had a three-year stint inside of a pregnancy center, developing a proof of concept. The real question that Support After Abortion answers is “why?”. Why are there millions of people that experience abortion every year but only hundreds reach out for support? So, we did several consumer research studies, and we learned that 90% of them did not know where to go for help, 80% wanted an anonymous program and 80% wanted a non-faith-based program. But here's the kicker, 95% of the programs that have been established are Christian based programs. And initially we had people telling us that they don't want Christian based programs and would like to remain anonymous. But there were very few programs that were practicing that, and so this is where we became the ambassador for the abortion healing movement.
We are helping the abortion healing movement better understand what men and women who've experienced abortion really need from us. We are helping them develop marketing tools, best practice models and even engaging clinicians like me to better serve those men and women. You'd be surprised what the narrative has done through our culture. Many people just avoid or are scared to talk about abortion thinking it to be an unsafe issue. And we're helping to draw it out much like what people have done with suicide and PTSD after war or divorce or poverty. There are so many people that have elevated these trauma experiences, and we're doing the very same thing for abortion.
Mihae: What are the most common gender biases you’ve witnessed so far?
Lisa: Well, this can be very interesting especially for our audience. We have blamed men for abortion experiences for the entirety of the abortion movement. But in our most recent consumer research, we asked men about their abortion experiences, and we found out that it was women who chose the abortion experience and didn't include the men in that journey. The world has maybe villainized the men in general and maybe holds a different reputation for men, but they are not responsible every time. Yes, there are plenty of ugly situations and stories where they are responsible but based on the research, what actually happens is that women don't feel safe to make a decision because of their broken past. And so, the easiest thing they do is blame or project that pain onto their partner. We're investigating this further but, yes that has been the most shocking thing in my journey.
I would say the second gender bias that I've seen, and which devastates me, is when I worked in the trafficking world. When those women go into the emergency room and present looking like drug addicts or looking like street people or have track marks on their arm, they receive a lesser level of care and are almost dismissed. And I'm not saying this happens everywhere, but it has been my experience. Those nurses and doctors are so overwhelmed with the amount of care that they provide that these folks get treated with bias. These are the most vulnerable population that actually need to be asked that one extra question. These are the kinds of things that I feel like oftentimes are missed because we have too much to do. This is too much, and this is such a normal thing for these this population.
Mihae: What does gender equality mean to you?
Lisa: For me it means that when I walk into a room, or when I get on a call like this, I'm not diminished for who I am, but I am looked at as somebody who can add value to any conversation, especially things that I'm trained on or that I have experienced. So, I look at gender equality as if I do walk in and sit at a table with professionals talking about abortion, healing, or talking about healing in general and that I would be looked at similarly as the man who’s sitting at the table with me. And together we would develop great programs, have great and honoring conversations with one another, see each other as assets to one another.
Mihae: What advice do you have for young women?
Lisa: I was just talking to a group of college students last night at FAU - a State College here in Florida. And there's about 100 girls that were in the sorority and we were talking about how relationships can be healthy and then some can be unhealthy. But what emerged as the single indicator is that these girls want to be something, they want to be something for somebody, and they want to be something for themselves. And it's likely because of their brokenness in the past, but also, because that's who we are as people.
We want to feel like we live for a purpose. So, I would say in order to live for a purpose, in order to live for “your” purpose, you must first do an internal investigation. What things are icky sticky inside of you that aren't allowing you to feel the courage, the strength, the boldness to step into that purpose? You need to get that cleared up as soon as possible through healing, coaching, whatever means necessary. Get that healed up because as you begin to heal, you can step into the spaces and places that your life is being called to.
And when you do find your purpose, make sure that you are walking in it, every bit of the way, remembering what you learned. Take those self-care skills with you. Take all that examination with you and you will live a life full of everything that was meant to be for you.
Mihae: Thank you. And I realized something as I was listening to you. In addition to thinking about myself and finding my purpose and just learning about myself like who I am and all of that. Now in my position as an example, I’m leading people and being a leader of a team, and I am thinking about how I can give back. I had mentors and people who helped me to get to where I am and now I’m thinking about how I can do the same for others. And it's that cycle of helping each other, that's what's needed, right?
Lisa: Absolutely, and you know what’s coming to mind as you share is that pain plus perspective equals purpose. And that's exactly what you're sharing when you can examine yourself. We've all experienced trials, some more severe than others, but they irk us, it's the baggage that we bring. But when we can have perspective about that pain, our purpose is so clear. And then we feel like that pain was all for something so much bigger. And that's what we can really find in what you're saying. I want to pay it forward. I want to give back. I want to help others do this and that's exactly what healing provides.
Mihae: What would be your pledge for this year’s International Women’s Day?
Lisa: My pledge this year is to continue being the voice for those women that don't have one right now after an abortion experience. To continue to move the narrative to a human issue and away from the politics and the religion so that more and more women and men would be able to find the healing that they're looking for and to know that they're worth it.
Mihae: What’s next for you?
Lisa: So, we are preparing for a Ted talk, and gathering lots of different resources to bring this conversation to the next level. It's a new conversation and people aren't always ready to receive it. So, we know we have to go big or go home. We are really trying to create space for new opportunities, getting into different hearts and minds of all people, all ethnicities, all religions. Because abortion doesn't discriminate, it is happening across all platforms.
The biggest thing that I want to see awareness around in 2022 is chemical abortion. It is going to take up 70% of abortions in this year alone. Chemical abortions can be purchased online and delivered to your front door without anyone or any experienced person helping you. And so, many women are reporting having an abortion in their bathrooms and that they get ready for work in the very next day. There’s an extra level of trauma and, without any support to walk through it, that really does impact people's emotional health. No matter where you fall on how you see abortion, this is a new complexity to the abortion movement.
I just want people to understand what that looks like and be able to walk with compassion if somebody is ready to share. And so that's why by getting on these different platforms and helping people see abortion from a different perspective, we could actually become people that are ambassadors in our living rooms or at our workplace. This is for those people whose voice have been shoved into a corner because abortion is a political or religious issue right now in our culture. And we can invite the same conversations that you and I are having with our girlfriends about relationships, about our mortgage payments, but also the hard conversations that we uncover in the break room at work that we feel we can't touch. And so, I'd like to see that change in 2022.
About Lisa Rowe:
Lisa Rowe, LCSW, has spent the last two decades equipping and empowering thousands of at-risk children, hurting adults and broken families to find hope, healing, and restoration. Lisa's clinical experience, coupled with her organizational leadership, has assisted government, nonprofit and private organizations to grow their impact, increase their sustainability, and leave a national imprint. Lisa has invested a great deal of time and leadership into helping men, women and families heal from the following adverse experiences: foster care, teen parenting, sex trafficking, an unexpected pregnancy, divorce, abortion, codependency, and addiction. Her passion for revealing the root of dysfunctional behavior and helping people find freedom from early childhood trauma is evident in her own life, the lives she helps lead, public speaking engagements, and the program model she has and continues to build to serve clients.
About Support After Abortion:
Support After Abortion (SAA) is a quickly growing, national 501(c)(3) non-profit. SAA works with over 800 agencies to individualize the care that a person impacted by abortion receives to find the hope and healing they deserve. Our innovative, research-centered, options-based model gives everyone, regardless of circumstances or barriers, an opportunity to live their best life by breaking free from guilt, shame, and condemnation. SAA services include webinar and conference training for leaders, counselors, clinicians, and others and support for those impacted by abortion through our HOPEline.