When a person isn’t ready for a baby—or doesn’t ever want to have one—an unexpected pregnancy can be devastating. Odds are that somebody you know will experience a surprise pregnancy at some point. About 45 percent of all pregnancies in the United States in 2011 were unintended, according to a 2016 study in New England Journal of Medicine which looked at the most recently available nationally representative data from various official sources. Of course, not all unplanned pregnancies are unwanted, but, in some cases, they are.
If a friend of yours is pregnant and has decided to get an abortion (or is leaning heavily toward one), you probably want to know how best to be there for them. Fortunately, there are many ways you can do just that.
1. First, withhold all assumptions.
This is the most important thing to keep in mind once your friend reveals their pregnancy news, Gillian Dean, M.D., senior director of medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells SELF.
You might think your friend wants an abortion or to carry the pregnancy to term, but you can’t actually know how they’re feeling—or anything else about the situation—until they tell you for sure.
So, instead of reacting with something like, “Congratulations!” or, “I’m so sorry,” respond with a judgment-free inquiry to get a sense of where your friend’s head is, clinical psychologist Lisa Rubin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at The New School and past chair of the reproductive issues committee of the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychology of Women, tells SELF. She recommends something like, “How are you feeling about this?”
2. If your beliefs will make it hard for you to be there for your friend, explain that in the most loving way you can.
Maybe if you became pregnant unexpectedly, you would never get an abortion. Doing what’s right for you is always a valid choice, but that doesn’t have any bearing on what’s right for someone else. “Only your friend knows what’s best for them,” Dr. Dean says. “Every situation is different.”
So, what does being a good friend look like if you’re against a friend’s abortion? If you’re able to offer specific kinds of support without judgment, do that, Rubin says. For instance, perhaps you’re willing to listen to your friend without trying to sway them, but you can’t accompany them to and from the procedure.
If you can’t be impartial at all, it’s OK to say as much for the sake of your friendship, Rubin says. You can tell your friend this is something you feel really strongly about, and although you respect their bodily autonomy, you can’t talk about it with them because it would probably just cause both of you distress.
3. Reinforce that this is their choice and their choice alone.
Your friend may ask you for advice, but that can be an incredibly tricky situation. This decision is a personal one, and it should be made carefully by them—not influenced by you or anyone else. “Your goal is not to convince them one way or the other,” Rubin says.
So, if they ask what you think they should do, compassionately and respectfully decline to tell them. Instead, express confidence in their decision-making abilities, Helen L. Coons, Ph.D., a Colorado-based clinical psychologist specializing in women’s health and mental health, tells SELF. She recommends something like, “You’ve made good decisions before, and I trust you will make the best one for you.”
You can also ask thoughtful questions that may help them feel more certain either way, Coons says. Some potential questions: What are they most worried about? What are the pros and cons they’re weighing? Are mixed emotions confusing them? Does the person who got them pregnant know? Are there important people they’re scared to tell?
4. Offer to connect them with resources if they seem scared or unsure.
This is an especially good idea if your friend is facing intense pressure to get an abortion or remain pregnant from other people or even themselves, Rubin says. Coons recommends helping your friend find mental health or other medical providers who specialize in pregnancy and abortion.
Ask your ob/gyn, primary care doctor, local health center that provides abortions, or Planned Parenthood for references. The National Abortion Federation (NAF) is a great way to find providers. Resources like your local abortion clinic or Planned Parenthood may offer in-house counseling, too.
5. Make sure any clinics they’re considering aren’t crisis pregnancy centers.
Crisis pregnancy centers (also known as CPCs) are family planning clinics that offer counseling and other prenatal services from an anti-abortion position. As SELF previously reported, these centers are often advertised as judgment-free medical facilities for women who may be considering abortion, when in reality many of them are unlicensed, religiously affiliated organizations. While they refuse to offer information about how or where to obtain an abortion, there are reports that CPCs lie to patients about the safety, accessibility, or legality of abortions.
For all of these reasons, they are not a helpful resource for someone who is looking for unbiased counseling or information on where to get an abortion. Again, NAF is a great resource for this, but it’s not exhaustive. If the clinic you’re considering isn’t on there, Google it. Even one negative review is a reason to be suspicious, because the clinic may be stacking the deck with fake positive reviews, Rubin says.
If the clinic has a website, look for red flags like lots of information about abortion (or “abortion counseling” and “abortion alternatives”) without actually indicating anywhere that they provide abortion services, Rubin says. Phrases like “emotional healing” and references to religion could be other red flags, as is the presence of misleading information (like the suggestion that abortion increases the risk of infertility, which safe and legal abortions do not).
If you’re still not sure, you can call the clinic. Crisis pregnancy centers are typically “evasive about whether [they] actually provide abortion services or the cost of services and encourage you to come in for a sonogram and pregnancy test,” Rubin says. You can also ask if they have a licensed medical provider on staff. People working at CPCs may lie to you about this, but looking into all these aspects can give you a better sense of whether or not they’re telling you the truth.
6. Find answers for any of their questions about the process.
“Unjust laws, abortion stigma, and deeply-rooted health and economic inequities make it impossible for some people around the country to make their own decisions about continuing or ending a pregnancy,” Dr. Dean says. “Accurate information can help them make the decision that’s best for their circumstances and enable them to take care of their health.” This is why Rubin recommends asking if your friend needs help researching anything about the process.
For example, if they express financial concerns, help them look into organizations meant to ease that burden, Rubin says, like the National Network of Abortion Funds. If they’re worried about local laws that might influence the process of getting an abortion, check out the Guttmacher Institute’s informative guide on the subject.
Researching information about pregnancy and abortion can be overwhelming, and you won’t always find science-based, accurate, or pro-choice resources. Rubin suggests helping your friend distinguish between factual and incorrect information. For instance, if their parents warn that abortion will cause depression, tell your friend about the science showing that getting a wanted abortion doesn’t have a negative impact on mental health.
7. If they need to wait before getting an abortion, suggest ways to help pass the time.
Twenty-six states require a 24- to 72-hour waiting period between the initial counseling and the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Or maybe your friend can theoretically get an abortion immediately but can’t take time off work for a bit.
Whatever the reason for the delay, help your friend wait it out if they’re finding it difficult, whether that’s with a movie marathon, crafting project, or some other diversion. “Sometimes when you’re waiting for the procedure, distraction is one of the best medicines,” Coons says.
8. Offer to accompany them to a surgical abortion or hang out with them during a medical abortion at home.
Your friend might want you by their side as much as possible, or maybe they prefer total privacy. The best thing to do is offer, which gives them the option to decline.
If your friend is having a surgical abortion at a health center, ask if they’d like you to accompany them to and from the procedure. (Depending on the type of anesthesia your friend is getting, the clinic may require that someone goes with them, so doing this research in advance can be helpful.) You may be allowed to be with them in the procedure or recovery room, so check in with the clinic and your friend about that possibility. Overall, getting an abortion can involve a lot of waiting around, so bring things that will keep you both occupied when necessary.
If your friend can go alone and would rather do that, you could arrange transportation by ordering a rideshare or sending a Venmo to cover the costs.
Now, let’s say your friend is having a medical abortion at home. Offer to be there if you’re up for it. (Side effects like pain, bleeding, and nausea kick in after the second pill, which causes cramping to pass the pregnancy.) Maybe you can offer to sleep over so that you can be there if they need you. Even if they want to be alone or with someone else, a care package with painkillers, pads, a heating pad, dessert, and their favorite flowers—or whatever you know they’d love—can go a long way.
9. After the abortion, check in. Then keep checking in.
Just because the procedure is over doesn’t mean you should stop showing up. “After your friend has an abortion, the most important thing you can do is listen to their needs and continue to be a supportive friend,” Dr. Dean says. “Maybe your friend just wants someone to be around after their abortion. Maybe they want you to rub their back, make some hot tea, watch their kids, bring them comfort food, or let them rest up.”
If alone time is what your friend is craving, give them that space. But Rubin recommends offering to be available in the event that they change their mind. Try something like, “Can we make a plan that you’ll contact me if you’re not feeling OK?”
10. Assure them that however they’re feeling is perfectly valid.
Your friend could feel relieved and excited to move on with life. They could feel sad and wish they’d never had to make the choice in the first place. Or they could feel a mix of many emotions. Try to help them let go of any expectations that they should feel a certain way by reminding them that this is their experience and theirs alone. “Sometimes it’s talked about as if abortions are all the same,” Rubin says. “But there is no one single way to […] experience abortion.”