Twelve years ago, Rev. Susan Chorley had an abortion. Now, the ordained Baptist minister is on a tour of churches around the country to share her story. “I think opening up space for conversation around women’s realities and abortion is really important,” Chorley, who’s based in Boston, tells SELF. “[Abortion] feels like an area that I’ve recognized the church is lacking in terms of supporting women’s experience—not that churches have to be supportive of abortion, but more that this is a reality for some women that are sitting in the pews.”
Chorley, 44, recently spoke to CNN as part of a video on women of faith who have abortions and shared that she was in her thirties when she made the tough decision. On top of her struggle with balancing working as a minister and parenting her 2-year-old, her marriage of seven years was falling apart. She and her then-husband agreed that it wasn’t the right time to bring a child into the world, so Chorley made a choice she’d never anticipated: She had an abortion. And the isolation she experienced after left her feeling vulnerable and alone. (Chorley and her husband permanently separated three years later.)
But Chorley doesn’t want other women to have to feel that way, so she visits churches around the country and discusses her experiences. This effort began last June as an extension of the work Chorley does with Exhale, an activist organization seeking to carve out safe spaces for people to talk about abortion. Chorley co-founded the organization with a group of like-minded individuals, including a woman she met at a class for sexual assault hotline volunteers. Exhale pushes for “pro-voice” conversations—favoring them over political debates and pro-choice vs. anti-abortion arguments. And it does so in myriad ways: an anonymous talkline, a TED Talk, a book, a speaking tour, and an upcoming documentary. “Abortion is happening among us,” Chorley told CNN. “It’s time we looked at it and talked about it.”
This non-judgmental, “pro-voice” approach can extend beyond abortion. Chorley said growing up, she felt that God “loved her all the way, no matter what.” But after her abortion, this belief began to waver. She’s since realized that many people show up to church—be it her congregation or another—feeling shame or pain over something. And she wants to help them feel comfortable enough to share their struggles so they don’t have to suffer in silence. That’s why Chorley speaks so candidly about her own abortion. It’s also why she isn’t afraid to admit that her decision was—and still is—hard for her.
Chorley said she’d always imagined having a second child, and she sometimes feels sad that she never did. Every anti-abortion bumper sticker or protester she sees also gives her pause. And when her son asked her about abortion, she had a hard time explaining it to the then-10-year-old. “Why in the world would anyone do that?” he asked, after Chorley told him what an abortion was. “I made that decision,” she replied, before telling him her story.
But the response she gets from supporters, strangers, and other women of faith reaffirms the work she doing. Every time Chorley has visited a church and spoken about her abortion experience, she’s been greeted by several woman thanking her and sharing their own stories of abortion. These exchanges remind her of the importance of the work she does with Exhale. “Why did I grow up not knowing that anyone had been through this experience?” Chorley said. “Why is that so hidden?”
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