The Rise of the Abortion Doula

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

Mary Mahoney and Lauren Mitchell of The Doula Project (Photo credit: Jackie Snow)

At 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday in a small conference room on the 13th floor of a Manhattan hospital (The Observer agreed not to name the facility), Lauren Mitchell, a 27-year-old gynecological teaching associate, invited a group of 15 medical students and one reporter to introduce themselves. “So go around, state your name, why you are here…and your star sign,” she prompted, sitting at the head of a conference table.

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Awkward pause.

Astrology probably isn’t what any of them expected when they signed up for the class, which will account for the first 6 of the 40 hours of  classroom required to volunteer as an abortion doula.

One by one, the students introduced themselves. One was male, the rest female. There were a smattering of future OB/GYN’s, a few pediatricians, and an unusually high percentage of Earth Signs.

An abortion doula is a new concept, pioneered by the Doula Project, of which Ms. Mitchell is a cofounder. In essence, it’s the same as a birth doula—in fact, most practitioners do both—except that she provides support to women getting abortions who’ve chosen not to take their pregnancies to term, offering counseling, back rubs and reassurance.

A familiarity with the zodiac, it turns out, can come in handy.

“We often ask patients their star-sign,” Ms. Mitchell told The Observer in an interview after the class let out. She was petite and wore a denim dress. “When a patient is nervous or anxious, telling them a little about their sign can take their mind off the abortion—everyone loves to hear about themselves.” (It occurred to us that talking about birth signs might have the effect of reminding women of, well, birth, but we went with it.)

New York has been called the abortion capital of the U.S., a title granted by pro-life organizations and made official earlier this year in a column by Ariel Kaminer in The New York Times. Ms. Kaminer cited a health department report released in December of 2010 which found that about 40 percent of pregnancies in New York City end in abortion, about 90,000 per year. “New Yorkers seeking to terminate a pregnancy can choose from more kinds of procedures at more kinds of facilities with fewer obstacles—and more ways to pay—than just about any place else,” she wrote, noting that it was covered by Medicaid here, unlike many other states, and that there were few of the restrictions involving parental consent, waiting periods and viewing sonograms found elsewhere. Last week, a local blog devoted to bargain living,, even published a guide to local providers.

Despite the failure last week of Mississippi’s “personhood” amendment, which would have given a fertilized embryo the status of a human being in the eyes of the law—criminalizing all abortion as well as some forms of birth control, like the IUD—state legislatures, buoyed by Republican election gains, did pass more than 80 laws restricting abortion in 2011, making it a watershed year for the pro-life movement. Meanwhile, pro-lifers are working on personhood initiatives in six other states. Ohio is considering a “heartbeat bill,” which would outlaw abortion as early as six weeks. Other states have adopted restrictions like mandatory ultrasounds, mandated counseling, and bans on coverage of the procedure by Medicaid and even private insurance policies. Today, 88 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, and in non-metropolitan areas this statistic rises to 97 percent, according to the US National Abortion Federation, an organization of abortion providers. As a result, New York has increasingly become a magnet for women from other states who are seeking to terminate their pregnancies.

The Rise of the Abortion Doula