Abortion Doulas: Providing non-judgmental support throughout the full spectrum of pregnancy
When I became a doula, I was pro-choice and an activist. In college, I put up fliers in campus bathroom stalls with information about how difficult it was for some women to get abortions —facts like only 87% of counties have no abortion provider. I believed that all pregnant women should have lots of options, including abortion.
My life changed after I watched a documentary in an anthropology class. It opened my eyes to a whole range of choices being denied to pregnant women. I learned that mothers were being denied the choice around how and where to give birth; and denied birth experiences that were centered on their needs. My passion was activated. I was driven to become a doula—a person trained to provide emotional and psychological support to women during childbirth.
After becoming a doula, I exchanged the days of pro-choice flyering for days and nights of birth balls and massage techniques. I loved having personal contact with women; and I loved being invited to participate in this incredible moment in a woman’s life. It is a blessing.
As I did more advocacy for more birthing options – including attending conferences with others doulas and midwives to grow my skills –I was surprised to find that the personal experiences my patients/clients had with abortion was being ignored. Most women who have abortions are already mothers and as a doula, I knew that many of the women I assisted through birth may have already had abortions, or would have one in the future.
I am a Radical Doula
My job as an activist – whether for abortion, reproductive justice or birth, is to make sure people have as many options as possible, and my job as a doula is to make sure they get the emotional support they need along the way. It was time to bring these two passions of mine together in a way that could improve the lives of pregnant women. I started a blog and started calling myself a radical doula.
It turns out, others shared my experience and my passion for activism and supporting women. Holly, an Exhale volunteer, birth doula and now co-founder of the Bay Area Doula Project working to provide abortion doula support, addressed this issue of how abortion was addressed at her birth doula training: “I know that some birth doulas are not pro-choice and it can be a divisive factor in the doula community,” she explained. “The only time that it came up was when they talked about trauma with women in labor—previous pregnancies that ended in miscarriage and abortion.”
Radical Doula is a place for people like me, Holly and other doulas to talk about all the issues that affect the pregnant women we work with. I write about LGBTQ issues, race and immigration too because pregnant people can be queer or immigrants and are people of color. Within a year of founding my blog I heard about the idea of an abortion doulas from a Boston-area doctor who provided abortion. She was working with the doulas already at work at her hospital, to provide support to women having second trimester abortions. It clicked! I knew a doula model of support could really work for women having abortions, and their families.
The Abortion Doula Movement is Born
Three years later there is now a growing movement of doulas doing exactly that. Under the banner of “full-spectrum”, doulas provide support to women across the spectrum of pregnancy—from miscarriage and abortion to childbirth and even adoption. There are active programs in at least five cities nationally where volunteer doulas are partnering with health clinics and abortion providers to support their patients.
One of the first volunteer abortion doula programs is The Doula Project in New York City, an organization I helped found alongside Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell. After just three years, the Doula Project already works in three clinics in the New York City area, and is quickly expanding into new ones. Over 50 doulas have been trained through the project, and the leadership team has been instrumental in helping other projects—in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Asheville North Carolina—get off the ground.
Full spectrum doula work centers the experiences of pregnant people, and puts the focus where it belongs: on providing them non-judgmental support. It the current political climate of hostility, this kind of support can be even more important. Holly explained,
“Doulas can fill a needed gap when well intentioned providers just don’t have the time to provide them with the physical and emotional support they need.” In addition to filling a gap in our health care system, doulas who have had abortions have the unique opportunity of sharing that experience in a more private way.
“I think that it’s a way for women who have had an abortion to give back to other women without having to be super public,” Holly outlined. “This is a way to support the community of women going through this experience without having to go outside the boundaries that they have for themselves.”
Most of the active abortion doula programs around the country begin by finding clinics and providers who are interested in partnering with them. Then the groups train people, some with birth doula experience and others without it, on the specifics of providing support to people during abortions. The volunteers then set up shifts so that when procedures are being done, the doulas are there to accompany each patient, in-person. What the doula actually does during the procedure varies from doula to doula, and patient to patient, but Holly explained the benefit of having a doula in the room:
“Having been in a lot of procedures as a medical assistant, the hardest part was having to let go of their hand to do vitals. The doula is the chance to completely separate yourself from that role. To be able to not let go. It’s such a unique place to be.”
Providing Support through Birth and Abortion
This is often an explanation of the role of a birth doula—the one person in the room who is solely focused on the emotional and psychological needs of the person giving birth. Not a medical provider, or a nurse, or even a mother or a partner. Just a supporter. That essence crosses over into abortion care as well. Laura Perez, doula and co-founder of Exhale, explained her role this way: “I want to hold your hand and let you know you’re not alone, you’re okay. I’m with you and I’m going to stay with you. You’re going to be able to get through this.”
There are a lot of assumptions about the personal experience of abortion, but what an abortion doula will tell you, though, is that no two people’s experiences are alike. Emotional responses vary widely. Laura shared,
“Being pregnant is significant, however a person a politically identifies or however she acknowledges the process. We’re not trying to be behind the politics of it. Her voice, her experience gets validated on her terms.”
Editors Note: An earlier version of this article stated that 86% of counties have no abortion provider. The statistic is actually 87% and the article has been corrected and there is now a link to the report, from the Guttmacher Institute. (12/20/11)
Miriam Zoila Pérez is the founder of Radical Doula and the Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Miriam has received various awards and recognitions for her work, including a 2009 Young Woman of Achievement Award from the Women’s Information Network and a 2010 Barbara Seaman Award for Activism in Women’s Health from the National Women’s Health Network. She was included in a recent MORE Magazine feature about new feminists to pay attention to, and Curve Magazine named her Best Activist/Newcomer in 2010. More info about Miriam’s work is here. If you’re interesting in having Miriam speak at your school or organization, please email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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