The Rise of the Abortion Doula

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

During the doula training, one instructor explained how to help clients who don’t speak English. She sucked in her breath, and moved her arms encouragingly. “I try to mime how to breathe, like an owl: ‘who, who.’ At first they think you are crazy, but they realize you are trying to help.”

Ms. Mitchell estimated that doulas see about 15–20 later term abortions a week, and about 75 first trimesters. In training, the instructors explain that many women seeking abortions are nonetheless not politically pro-choice. She handed out flash cards with real-life situations. The first read: “A woman tells you, ‘I just killed my baby.’ How do you respond?” The students broke into groups to discuss the question. Many came up with a similar answer: Explain that the procedure is legal because the fetus is not a baby, it just has the potential to be one.

That, of course, is the murky distinction that makes the issue so difficult for everyone it touches. As the executive director for Feminists Choosing Life of New York, Kelly Brunacini has thought a lot about about the flip-side, how to convince someone that a fetus is a baby: “The quickest way to change a pro-choicer’s mind is to let them see the procedure,” she said. “A lot of the argument is intellectual: ‘My body, my choice’ sounds really good. When you see an abortion or you go through the mourning process with a woman who has aborted, it becomes less intellectualized, and more real.”

To some extent, Ms. Mitchell sees her point. In an interview with The Observer, she joked that she sometimes wants to automatically reject the abortion doula applications of pro-choice activists, because it’s so hard to go from pro-choice rhetoric to supporting real people who don’t necessarily find their abortions empowering.“Those pictures pro-life activists flash are real,” Ms. Mahoney said. “That is what a fetus looks like when its head is crushed. When you see the procedure, you must decide, as a pro-choice person, whether you are in or out.” She’s thought about it a lot. “I have never been more in,” she said.

As restrictions on abortion have tightened, talk has grown among members of Haven and the Doula Project of creating a national network, an underground railroad of sorts, made up of women who would provide places to stay and/or transportation to and from clinics all over the United States. “Abortion doulas can offer someone to travel with, so they could have a support person the whole way, and not just your Mom or husband who is freaking out,” Ms. Mahoney explained. Other pro-choice organizations have begun raising money to help women pay for abortions, including The New York Abortion Access Fund, which earlier this year held a fundraiser, sponsored by Jezebel, that included a screening of Dirty Dancing.

During the doula training Ms. Mitchell demonstrated the manual vacuum aspirator for the class. Reaching beneath the conference table, she removed several small cups green Jell-O and placed them on the table. “I remembered the green this time,” she said, to nervous titters all around. “The last group, we had red, and I think it scared some of the doulas.”

Ms. Mitchell stood up and placed the end of the device, which resembled a very large syringe, into the cup. She pulled the handle. There was a loud slurping sound as the Jell-O was sucked into the chamber and liquified.

“Does it sound like that in the room?” we asked.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“You should play music or something.”

Ms. Mahoney said that some clinics do in fact turn on a radio, but sometimes the song can be wildly inappropriate, i.e., “Papa Don’t Preach.” “One time ‘Everybody Hurts’ came on,” she recalled, “and the doctor slammed it off.”

The students then tried out the procedure for ourselves. The Observer found it fairly easy, but some students had more trouble. There were squeals when one glob of Jell-o flew across the room and landed on the table in front of us.

The purpose of the demonstration was to familiarize us with the procedure, but some pro-choice activists have begun to consider whether they would break the law if abortion became illegal. “Doing them underground is a major last resort,” Ms. Mahoney said. “I would be willing to, if things came to that.”