The Doula Project of New York City is a non-profit providing support to people across the spectrum of pregnancy. It is volunteer-run and all of its services are free of charge. Since 2008, its 50 trained abortion and birth doulas have provided services to over 5,000 people in the New York City area. I talked with Kathleen, who has been a doula with the Project since 2009 and a member of the Leadership Circle for the past year and a half.
To start-off, could you first describe a little about what an abortion doula is?
An abortion doula provides emotional, physical, and informational support to people choosing abortion. As part of the Doula Project, our doulas also support people facing miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal anomaly and provide birth doula services to low-income people and to people choosing adoption. All in all, our mission is to offer care and compassion to pregnant people making a variety of choices regarding their pregnancy and/or birth.
What does a day’s work for an abortion doula look like?
Depending on the site, our doulas work with between four and 15 abortion clients per day. When I work with an abortion client, I try to help her feel safe and at ease. Any medical procedure can be scary, but facing an abortion can be especially frightening for some because of the wealth of inaccurate information and the stigma surrounding the procedure. Before the abortion begins I try to help my client feel comfortable by answering her questions and chatting. I’m usually with her as she meets the doctor and the nursing staff.
Being awake during an abortion is very doable but is sometimes painful. During the procedure I may help her breathe through uncomfortable moments, explain what’s happening, squeeze her hand, stroke her forehead, and distract her with conversation about her favorite TV show or her weekend plans. Afterwards I help her get settled in the recovery room. I may give her a hot pack to place on her abdomen to help with cramps and put cool cloths on her forehead and back of her neck if she’s overheated. Some of my clients want to talk a lot in the recovery room, others are quieter. If my client is settled and seems to be feeling okay, I often sit quietly in a chair close by, ready to engage if and when she chooses.
Would you mind sharing a little of the history behind the conception of an abortion doula?
Mary Mahoney, Lauren Mitchell, and Miriam Perez, all birth doulas and reproductive justice activists in New York City, founded the Doula Project (then called the Abortion Doula Project) in 2007. They wanted to bring the level of support provided by birth doulas during labor and delivery – natural pain management and relaxation techniques, emotional support and compassion, and education about pregnancy – to clients terminating their pregnancies.
It is important to note that many people have filled the role of abortion doula over the years. Compassionate counselors, escorts, nurses, and doctors working in the abortion setting have long provided the sort of reassurance and kindness that we strive to offer. But in volunteering our services as abortion doulas we have formalized this role and have the time to devote ourselves entirely to supporting our clients.
Can you talk a little more about how reproductive justice fits in?
I see the concept of an abortion doula springing most directly from a confluence of reproductive justice ideology and natural birth philosophies. As reproductive justice activists remind us, the choices most of us are able to make about our reproductive health are greatly affected by our circumstances, which are constrained by socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, legal status, etc. The Doula Project’s conception of “spectrum of choice” is very much aligned with the reproductive justice movement’s notion that we must support all reproductive health choices, including whether to use contraception, to have an abortion, to decline contraception or sterilization, and to choose to parent.
I’m sure most, if not all, your experiences volunteering as a doula need to be kept confidential, but would you be able to share some typical or composite experiences from working with different clients?
These are composites of clients and the names are pseudonyms.
Marina wants to keep this pregnancy but has an eight-month-old daughter at home and just started a new job. She tells me she’s certain she can’t be a good mom to her daughter, financially or emotionally, if she has another baby so soon. She cries during and after the procedure. She tells me that she knows she “has to do this” for her daughter, but it hurts a lot. She naps a little in the recovery room and I give her my phone number when she leaves.
Leslie, who is trying to escape an abusive partner, tells me that she fears that bringing this pregnancy to term would keep her forever tied to him. She has a warm smile and is very open with me as she describes the shelter where she is staying with her two young children and the restraining order she has against her husband. She flinches a few times during the procedure but is able to talk through it and is surprised when it’s done. She tells me it was much quicker and easier than she thought it would be. The social worker who did her counseling prior to the procedure gave her a lot of resources and I make sure she has a chance to speak to the social worker a second time before she leaves.
Deana emphatically refuses my proffered hand and snarls at the nurse. Later, in the recovery room, she apologizes, telling me, through tears, that these last few weeks have been really stressful. She loves the hot pack I’ve given her and we talk about how to make one at home by filling a large sock with rice, tying off the end, and sticking it in the microwave. She assures me that she is going to go home and sleep this afternoon and will make sure her partner pampers her.
Would you mind also sharing some of your own feelings from doing this work?
Being an abortion doula is an incredible privilege. I’m stepping into a person’s life for just a brief moment – an hour or two, sometimes less, for first trimester procedures, or several hours over two or three days for second trimester procedures. And yet, during this short time period, the client and I share a very intimate experience. I have the opportunity to ease her pain, to listen to her, to validate her choices, to hold her hand. I often find myself humbled by our clients’ strength and so grateful that I can be a part of this experience. Many of our clients have difficult stories to tell and bearing witness to these experiences can take its toll emotionally. But more times than not as I leave a site after a full day, I feel uplifted.
So how does one actually become an abortion doula?
For those living in the New York City area, we recruit new doulas once a year and provide an intensive two-day abortion doula training for our new volunteers. To receive the application when it’s next posted, you can join our mailing list by visiting our website.
I’m excited to say that a lot of other full-spectrum doula groups are springing up across the country (Check the list at the end of the post). If you live in an area with no current abortion doula service and are interested in starting your own (please do!), we would love to support you in any way we can. Please visit our website for more information about how to set up a training with us and join our networking circle. We also provide trainings for hospitals, clinics, medical schools, and more.
If readers want to learn more about the work of abortion doulas, what resources can they access?
Our website and the websites I referenced below provide a lot of additional information. Readers can also check out this article in Women’s eNews for more details about the work The Doula Project does.
List of Local Doula Projects
And soon the DC Doulas for Choice Collective!