The Rise of the Abortion Doula

As Abortions Become Harder to Obtain, Pro-Choice Activists Eschew Policy Debates for Flesh and Blood Activism

Given their string of legislative losses, there seems to be a shift of energy underway in the pro-choice movement, as activists back away from policy debates and instead turn their attention to practical matters, organizing to assist women in navigating the shifting legal landscape. In New York, they are offering hands to hold and backrubs, opening up their apartments to women from out of town, and helping them deal with insurance claims. “It is about finding the flesh and blood approach, rather than the theoretical one,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Rebecca Stanton, a professor at Columbia University, felt a little guilty when she and her husband purchased a roomy two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, she told The Observer over tea, in front of the impressive view from her Harlem apartment. “We had all this extra space and it seemed sort of silly,” she said. A friend directed her to Haven, an organization that finds volunteers willing to house low-income women and their partners who are traveling to the city for abortions. Haven was founded in 2001 when Catherine Megill, an abortion clinic social worker, discovered that a number of patients were forced, due to financial circumstance, to sleep on park benches or in their cars.

Ms. Stanton remembered one family she hosted, who’d driven up from Virginia in a dilapidated station wagon. The bumper sticker on their car made her draw a hand to her heart. “It said, ‘I am the proud parent of an honor roll student at [so and so] middle school,” she recalled. The honor roll student was the one seeking the abortion. She and both parents crashed in Ms. Stanton’s extra bedroom the evening before the procedure.

The girl’s parents had already extended the lines on their credit cards to initially make the trip. That afternoon, an ultrasound indicated she was further along, by four critical days, than previously thought, tacking another $400 onto the medical bill. As Ms. Stanton busied herself ordering Chinese food, the girl’s parents called bank managers. When that didn’t work, they called in favors.

“The girl was very quiet,” Ms. Stanton recalled. “I am not even sure if she knew she was having sex. She was overweight, and her family didn’t find out she was pregnant until she was 21 weeks along.”

Another volunteer, author and political activist Jane Weissman, opens up her spacious Greenwich Village apartment for Haven when she’s not traveling. Ms. Weissman said the roughest part of the experience is dropping the patient off at the clinic, sometimes walking her past protesters—each party knowing they will likely never see one another again. While most women Haven sees are getting second trimester abortions, Ms. Weissman said they often just want to go straight home after the second day, regardless of how they feel.

Approximately 4,000 women have been assisted by abortion doulas trained by The Doula Project, which was started by Ms. Mitchell and Mary Mahoney in 2007. The group partners with clinics and public hospitals to, as the website delicately puts it, “support people across the spectrum of pregnancy.”

“The mission of our project is to support people who would otherwise not have access to doula services,” Ms. Mitchell said. “So we see, for instance, people who are undocumented and can’t apply to Medicaid, or folks who are really lacking in resources.” They started the project after undergoing doula training in college. Ms. Mitchell says she went to a “hippie college, where it seemed everyone was training to be a doula.” The idea of an abortion doula, she said, was a way to stand out. Originally, the project caught some flack from the pro-choice community. As Marisa Meltzer wrote in a 2010 Slate piece, “Even as a pro-choice feminist, when I heard about abortion doulas my first thought was: Are women really so fragile that they need to hire a complete stranger to hold their hand at the doctor’s?”

“We were concerned about that when we first started, that the pro-choice movement wouldn’t exactly embrace us,” Ms. Mahoney said, “because we come from the reproductive justice movement, which is more holistic and looks at people’s feelings and individual experiences, not just policy.” Ms. Mitchell added that some abortion providers were skeptical at first, as well, but that they now they find that the doulas make their job easier.