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What We Can Learn from Lena Dunham's Abortion Comment

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Lena Dunham has been known to say controversial things, both intentionally and unintentionally. And in an episode of her podcast Women of the Hour, Dunham tackled the issue of reproductive choice, a cause that she has done a lot of commendable work to promote. She wanted to raise awareness about the stigma that comes along with having an abortion, but in the process, she managed to make a comment that many found to be insensitive. (Related: What Donald Trump's Election Could Mean for the Future of Women's Health)

Some background: In the podcast, Lena explained that a woman had previously asked her to share her abortion story, and Lena told her: "I haven't had an abortion." The actress then went on to say: "I wanted to make it really clear to her that as much as I was going out and fighting for other women's options, I myself had never had an abortion ... And I realized then that even I was carrying within myself stigma around this issue," she said. "Even I, the woman who cares as much as anybody about a woman's right to choose, felt it was important that people know that I was unblemished in this department." After reflecting on her experience and hearing the stories of other women who were featured on the podcast, she concluded: "Now I can say that I still haven't had an abortion, but I wish I had."

People weren't happy with Dunham's outright statement that she wished she'd been through something that many people consider to be traumatic, possibly because it could be interpreted as saying that abortions are "cool" or a desirable thing to go through. Dunham has already apologized for what she said, explaining that it was a joke, but this fiasco made us think: If someone so actively involved in reproductive rights could make such an unintentionally offensive comment, a lot of other people may accidentally do the same.

So what do you do if someone close to you got an abortion? "First off, people should understand that each woman's emotional experience is going to be different," says Kat Glick, LPC, LCADC, BCHHP, director of quality and compliance at Talkspace. "It can be hard to know what others need in the days and months afterward, but you should respect however they feel, regardless of your own personal judgment about the situation." (Worth noting: Science says abortion doesn't cause mental health issues.)

Here's how to support someone who has had an abortion, in a compassionate and considerate way.

Lend an ear.

Lending an open ear can be more therapeutic than you'd expect. "Listening as they express their story, what they've been through and are still going through is very powerful and healing," says Erika Martinez, Psy.D.

But don't make the conversation about you.

It's best to avoid "statements about what you would have done (or did) when faced with the same decision," says Martinez. Though it might seem helpful to relate your experience in the moment, "don't inject yourself, your narrative, or compare your situation with hers." Ideally, you want to focus on their feelings more than your own since they're the one going through something difficult at the moment—speaking about what you think and feel (or felt during your own experience) isn't really helpful. When you're talking to someone about their experience, "keep the conversation on them, unless they ask you to talk about something else," says Glick.

Really listen.

"Check in with her about how she's feeling, but don't push the issue if she does not want to talk about it," says Glick. "If she does share with you, make sure to actively listen and provide unconditional support." Active listening means you occasionally respond to the speaker by repeating or paraphrasing things they've said as you understand them, to check that you're getting their full meaning and also let them know you're really hearing them. Phrases like "It sounds like..., I'm hearing you say that..., I'm sensing that you..." are called tentifiers, and they're awesome tools that can be used in active listening.

Ask her what she needs.

If you're wondering what you can do besides lending an ear, Glick has a couple of suggestions for actions that you can take to support someone in an empathetic way. First, ask her directly for what she needs. "If she wants some time alone, give it to her, but don't go too far. Let her know that you're in the vicinity if she needs you, and check in on her periodically," she says. It's very possible that she may not be ready to talk about it yet (or ever), but she should know you're there for her when she is.

Offer a distraction.

"Offer the person a couple options for activities that can provide some fun and positive energy," says Glick. So put on her favorite Netflix show, go grab dinner at your go-to spot, or take a long walk together—as long as she's up for it.

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