Historically, a doula is a person who provides emotional and physical support to a woman giving birth. Her sole focus is to help the woman in labor – not the family or the medical staff – and to serve as her advocate, making sure she has the birth experience she wants and needs. More recently, this idea is being expanded to encompass other pregnancy-related events, including abortion and adoption. The people who are doing this work operate under the radical assumption that every woman deserves support and respect for her unique pregnancy experience.
Earlier this year, we interviewed Mary Mahoney of The Doula Project on our blog. A completely volunteer run-and-operated organization, the Doula Project is providing abortion-doula services to women in New York City.
Exhale is honored to give The Doula Project a “Pro-Voice High-Five” for New Services. I hope you enjoy my interview with Lauren Mitchell, their Board President, about how their service is changing the world and what else is needed to grow their impact.
Aspen: Tell me about The Doula Project and how it got started.
Lauren: The Doula Project was started by four pro-choice birth doulas who wanted to expand the doula model of care to work with those who are facing abortion, miscarriage, and stillbirth induction. We began on the heels of the New York Birth Coalition Summit in 2007 (which, to our knowledge, hasn’t happened since) when we realized that while it was amazing that so much work was being done to acknowledge the importance of empowerment and support during the birth process, there were very few formalized programs in place to ensure empowerment and support during the abortion procedure.
The four of us decided from there to begin the Abortion Doula Project. We ultimately decided that we needed to work with clinics, rather than individuals for two major reasons: the first is the simple fact that many clinics are reluctant to allow “non-essential” people into procedure rooms, and support people are often not considered essential. The second is that we recognized that for many people, who haven’t even told their close friends, families, partners, or other key sources of support in their non-abortion-related lives, it would take an immense feeling of empowerment and a firm grasp on reproductive-justice jargon to say, “I want a doula to be with me during my abortion.” Some things are just difficult to ask, and we wanted to be as accessible to people as possible. We also decided that we would ideally use an “opt-out” model, which means that we would be in the clinic regardless to offer support, unless the client stated that she didn’t want us there.
So this was all great, except that we didn’t yet have a clinic. It took us until August 2008 before we were able to partner with the Reproductive Choice/Family Planning Clinics in one of Manhattan’s public hospitals. Our clinic family there has been nothing short of exceptionally generous with their time and patience as we’ve developed our organization. At this point, the doulas have been integrated into the clinic services as a standard part of care—we even get concerned text messages and phone calls when the doulas are running late, asking if they’re going to come!
Shortly thereafter, we began working with Spence-Chapin, an amazing pro-choice adoption agency based in New York City, to provide birth support to their birth mothers. This work has been crucial to the way we have shaped our thinking, and inspired our catch-phrase, “Spectrum of Choice.” Many of us feel that being able to provide support for our amazing Spence-Chapin clients has been life-changing. For more about Spence, visit www.spence-chapin.org.
More recently, we’ve expanded our service to work with one of Planned Parenthood’s New York City sites, and to work with clients who couldn’t afford a birth doula on a case-by-case basis through our website referral page. These two new recent developments have made us quite busy! But, of course, happy. We’re still completely volunteer run-and-led, and we have a wonderful group of new doulas to work with us on our mission.
We’ve recently had our third training, and Mary and Lauren have opened up their role in the organization to be a part of a slightly larger “Leadership Circle”—a decision-making and working body made up of seven doulas from our awesome crowd of 45, without whom The Doula Project wouldn’t be nearly as strong.
We label what we do as “working across the spectrum of choice,” but it’s also facilitating a community of trust and respect within the medical system by providing patients with comprehensive, holistic care and support, and trusting individuals to make the choices that are best for them. Above all, we never forget that it is a privilege to be with our clients in their time of need, and to honor that they must be supported in whatever way they feel is best for them, whether that’s through conversation, or massage, or even to just leave them be until they call us.
Aspen: What will the world look like *when* the Doula Project succeeds in its mission?
Lauren: We want to acknowledge “reproductive choices” beyond politics, and as a complex issue that refuses to be made black-and-white. We have been very lucky and grateful for the immense support we’ve had from a great many members of both the birth doula community and the abortion rights/reproductive justice community—perhaps, largely, because we’re located in New York. But even so, we have had moments where we find we have to defend our work to advocates on both sides.
It’s hard to say exactly what the world will look like when The Doula Project fully achieves our mission, but we anticipate it will be one where honoring difficult decisions with support will not be looked at as acts of weakness, where there’s an understanding that easy answers are often bad ones, and where pregnant people will feel empowered to ask for what’s right for them without shame and with great patience.
Aspen: What needs to change in order to make this vision our reality?
Lauren: We have to understand that pregnancy, regardless of its outcome, is a mult-faceted issue. We need to have the support of people working within the doula community, the reproductive justice community and the medical community on our side. Support for patients is a good thing! One of our goals is to show how doulas create communities, not split them. What really needs to change is a greater opening of empathy toward everyone in the room, with the client of course being at the center, but also including the medical staff and other doulas.
Aspen: What does the Doula Project need to grow its work and its impact?
Lauren: We first need a wider conceptual expansion of “choice” without qualifiers (for example, “I’m pro-choice, but late term abortions are bad”) and with a warmer inclusion of the choice to parent or the choice to make an adoption plan. In this, we in the abortion activist community need to allow ourselves the room to acknowledge that terminations can be both empowering and difficult—for some, even devastating, even if the person is confident that abortion is the right decision for them. Providing doula support for our clients doesn’t mean that we think our clients aren’t strong people—to the contrary, we love them for their strength. And we want to provide them with as much compassion and empathy as we can as they follow through with their decisions.
There are many groups across the country who are trying to get similar projects started, several of whom already have relationships with abortion clinics and are ready to provide abortion doula services on a regular basis. For these groups to be successful and for the concept of an “abortion doula” to be something that’s part of a standard of care, we need support from the medical community to do this work. Groups need to be able to partner with clinics in order to reach out to clients, and without that opportunity the mission of these groups simply remain a good idea.
Aspen: What are you most proud about and wish more people knew about what it is you do every day?
Lauren: The beautiful thing about most of what we do is that it’s about building connections with people, and empowering our clients to have faith in themselves and the decisions they make. We believe that in providing our clients with the support that they need during the time of their procedure or birth and by validating their fears, concerns and joy, they will be able to look back upon their decision with an understanding of their own strength.
The work we do is obviously direct-service. We respect research and theory—it’s important in broadening the reproductive justice movement. But, we also see the great power in knowing hands-on exactly what we are fighting for. A lot of our work is shining a bright light in some very dark places.
We are familiar with abortion across the length of the legal limit; we have attended births that are ideal and births that show the hospital system at its worst, and even when our work is hard and tiring. While always rewarding, our work can also be hard, and sometimes even draining. Even so, the support that we get in return for ours from our clients and from the communities that have stood by us as we’ve put this organization together has been amazing.
Thank you The Doula Project for your New Services!