Grayson Dempsey wears her sunglasses like Gloria Steinem (big) and her heart like Drew Barrymore (on her sleeve).
In Steinem's political spirit and Barrymore's demeanor, Dempsey bears more than a passing resemblance to both women.
At 27, Dempsey is the president of Backline, a national, Portland-based confidential hotline. It offers apolitical counsel to women and their loved ones who have questions (both moral and practical) about pregnancy, abortion, adoption and parenting.
Dempsey founded Backline in 2004, and the toll-free service gets about 1,000 calls a year. Now the group, which got its start in volunteers' homes, is moving to its first permanent office space on Northeast Alberta Street this month.
Dempsey's group is staunchly pro-choice, but that doesn't mean Dempsey is uncritical of her pro-choice allies. WW recently sat down with Dempsey, who is six months pregnant with her first child, to talk about Backline's relationship with the pro-choice movement, how her group's efforts in some ways align with anti-abortion strategies and why some don't want to grapple with the emotions surrounding abortion.
WW: Does Backline's acknowledgment of moral questions around abortion make the mainstream pro-choice movement nervous?
Grayson Dempsey: Absolutely. It makes them nervous because we operate in a system that has had to rely heavily on sound bites and slogans. The pro-choice movement has been on the defensive for 30 years, so we have come up with messages that we feel are really impenetrable, like "my body, my choice"—a good message that nobody can get through. When you start to say, "You know, pregnancy is complicated, and everybody has feelings about it. I think we can all agree that we want women to be healthy...let's talk about what that means" —that's not easy to run on a 10-word lawn sign.
What's Backline's philosophy?
That once you become pregnant and have to make a choice, that you may experience loss in any choice that you make.... Women can embrace complexity, and still very much be pro-choice. If women do embrace complexity, they become more pro-choice, because they realize it's not as simple as "some women have abortions and some have children."
Has your pregnancy shifted your views?
My pregnancy has made me so adamantly engaged in the work that I do that it is unbelievable. I can't imagine going through it without the support I have from everybody in my family and in my life, and I can't imagine going through it unless I was committed to being a mom. I threw up every day for three months. I cried for no reason. I'm gaining weight.
Do you think Backline addresses the relatively new strategy on the right that says abortion harms women who have one?
I think the right has been incredibly effective in starting to frame abortion in terms of the human experience and really come away from talking about the rights of the fetus. They're moving toward a strategy that says "abortion hurts women," that "women are post-abortive"... Backline is an amazing response to that, and I think we're really unique in the pro-choice world. I hear most of our callers not existing in extremes. I hear the women who say, "I picketed clinics my whole life and now I'm pregnant and I need an abortion, what do I do?" We can talk to those women without getting political. And then I hear, "I've been pro-choice all my life. I've marched for choice. And now I'm pregnant, and the fact that I even feel conflicted makes me wonder if I'm not true enough to my beliefs." And we can talk to those women as well.
By talking about women's emotions around abortion, aren't you actually feeding that strategy on the right?
I think we're counterbalancing it. Because when women feel like the only place they can go to talk about their abortion experience is an anti-abortion organization, then the anti-abortion side is winning. We offer a place where women can say, "This was hard for me," and we can say, "Yeah, let's talk about that." But at the end of that, we're
not going to say, "Aaaaand here's a picket sign—go stand in front of your local clinic." Just because something was hard doesn't mean it still wasn't the right decision.
What's something positive the anti-abortion movement has given women?
The anti-abortion movement has the potential...I don't necessarily see this, but I think they have the potential to give women services—like the free diapers at the Crisis Pregnancy Centers [a network of religiously oriented resource centers where employees guide pregnant women toward parenting or adoption]. Those are services that I don't see being offered by mainstream pro-choice organizations. I feel like if [anti-abortion advocates] had a strategy that was really about supporting women and mothers, that I would respect that. Unfortunately, I don't see that. I see those strategies as manipulative. "If we give women free diapers, they won't have abortions!"
How has the pro-choice movement harmed women?
I think the pro-choice movement has participated in perpetuating stigma around abortion for the last 34 years. I think we became so eager to win politically that we did not stop to say, "You know what? Having an abortion is still a moral decision, and we know that women make this from a place in their heart that is good." I have worked for mainstream political pro-choice organizations that have said, "We're pro-choice, not pro-abortion." Every time someone says that I cringe, because I think, "We're standing here saying we're not pro-abortion." And here's Right to Life saying, "We're not pro-abortion," and the woman who's had an abortion is like, "Now where do I go?" I think we've participated in that stigma, which I wish we could start to reverse. I think that we have become so focused on abortion that we have neglected the reasons in women's lives that they've elected to have abortions in the first place. I don't know if that's harm, but I really think it's a way that we've lost our message. We often also are protecting the rights of urban middle-class white women, and have been willing in some ways to make trades for women who are more vulnerable.
Speaking of race, what do you make of the debate in Northeast Portland after Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette announced it wanted to build a new clinic at the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Northeast Beech Street, not too far from your new office? Opponents of the plan went so far as to accuse Planned Parenthood of targeting black women for abortions and participating in "black genocide."
I was really saddened by that debate. But I think it should be taken very seriously that, while the abortion rate has dropped in the last few years nationwide, it has gone up for low-income women and women of color. What that means is low-income women and women of color are lacking the ability to access things like birth control. We're slashing programs like WIC and Medicaid, things that help women. We have caps on welfare. We're really letting our political leaders off the hook when we're looking at each other, saying, "It's Planned Parenthood's fault that more women of color are having abortions." We need to look at systems that say, "Women make choices about whether or not to have children based on the resources that they're dealt." I've had women come into abortion clinics and say, "I don't really want to have an abortion, but I have two kids, my husband and I are both unemployed, we have no health insurance. What am I supposed to do?" If we lived in a culture that valued life, we would be helping those issues, not just saying, "You don't get to have an abortion today and we're not going to address anything else."
Dempsey, who works part-time training medical residents in abortion care, doesn't collect a salary at Backline.
Backline will host an open house Saturday, May 19, from 5 to 7 pm in its new office at 2904 NE Alberta St. Backline's number is 1-888-493-0092.
Backline's budget was $40,000 last year. Dempsey hopes to raise $100,000 in 2008.