Exhale promotes support and respect for each person’s unique experience with abortion. Our talkline is just one of the countless ways to provide a woman who has had an abortion with the opportunity to feel supported and respected. Our e-cards are another way. Our zine just one more. Our hope is that each woman finds what it is she needs to experience wellbeing after an abortion, whether she finds it through Exhale, a friend, her priest, a self-help book, or through the work of organizations like The Doula Project.
The Doula Project provides free compassionate care and emotional, physical, and informational support to people across the spectrum of pregnancy. They are made up of 20 volunteer doulas and work in partnership with Spence-Chapin Children and Family Services and the Reproductive Choices Clinic of a Public Hospital in New York City. Since 2008, we have provided doula care for more than 1,000 pregnant people.
I had the opportunity to interview Mary Mahoney, a founder of the The Doula Project, which was recently featured in Bust Magazine. I was interested in learning more about her experiences working with women having abortions, the role of doula’s in promoting wellbeing post-abortion, and the changes they are working to accomplish.
Here is what she shared.
Me: Tell me what led you to found The Doula Project.
Mary: “I initially became a doula because I wanted to learn more about pregnancy, my own body, and how abortion rights and birth rights are connected. I had been working in the reproductive justice movement for about a year at that point, and I wanted to dig deeper into what holistic reproductive health really means and how it affects our entire lives. When I met the other founders of The Doula Project, I realized how much bigger my doula work could be, that I could actually help develop a movement that brings together birth and abortion, direct service and social change. Our mission of ‘supporting people across the spectrum of pregnancy’ inspires me on many levels. In a direct service sense, it means we get to work with women who are giving birth, having abortions, choosing adoption, and experiencing fetal loss. In a political context, it is a way for us to make a statement that these reproductive health experiences should not be isolated from one another.”
Me: What have you learned – about women, about yourself, about abortion – by being a doula to women undergoing abortions?
Mary: “Some people in the reproductive health and rights movement have asked us, why do you assume women having abortions need emotional support? In the beginning, that question scared me. I thought, Is that what our project is doing? Are we setting the movement back in some way by thinking that this is an emotional time for a woman?
Two years later, our project has served more than 1,000 women having abortions, and I can say that there is no simple answer to such a simple question. What I’ve learned is that everyone experiences abortion, and pregnancy for that matter, differently. Someone recently said to me, ‘I love the spectrum of pregnancy framework because it makes me remember that these women are experiencing pregnancy, not just abortion.’ I think when a woman has an abortion, in that moment when that decision is made we forget that she is a whole person. So I’ve stopped making generalizations or trying to predict how a woman will react before, during, or after her abortion because each person’s life looks different, even within a shared physical experience. And I stopped being scared of the movement when I started getting to know the individual having the abortion. Nearly all of the individuals we’ve encountered in the clinic have benefited from doula support, whether on an emotional (which can have a variety of meanings), physical, or informational level.”\
Me: How does your work promote a woman’s wellbeing after an abortion?
Mary: “When we started the project in 2007, we envisioned a big part of our role occurring outside the clinic, after the abortion. We would visit our clients in the recovery room and give them our phone numbers. We talked about setting up a doula phone line so clients could easily reach us whenever they needed. What’s been interesting is that our communication with them after their abortion is minimal. This could be for any number of reasons, including that they don’t need further support, that they have friends and family to talk to, or that they don’t want to revisit the experience in any way.
Aside from direct care post-abortion, I think having a doula present during a procedure gives women something that is missing from many medical experiences, particularly reproductive health experiences, and that is feeling in control of what is happening to their bodies. Doulas can serve as an amazing vehicle for empowerment by giving women tools to self-advocate in a medical setting, meeting them where they are and on their terms, and offering a strong, empathetic presence. Our hope is that if women are empowered during their abortions they will feel more in control of their reproductive health after their abortions.
On another note, we are currently working with a nutritionist and herbalist to provide women with a post-abortion wellness guide. It will include suggested foods, drinks and herbal remedies to help soothe and comfort a woman in the weeks after her abortion. Building up our post-abortion services is definitely a goal of ours in the coming year.”
Me: What – if any – role have you seen loved ones play in supporting a woman through an abortion?
Mary: “As a doula for terminations, my contact with a client’s loved ones is usually minimal. At our clinic, loved ones aren’t allowed into procedures rooms, and only under certain circumstances can they visit the recovery room. I tend to get a little insight into the support of family and friends from the clients themselves, and while it is not uncommon for a woman to come to a procedure alone, many of our clients have the support of at least one person in their lives: sisters, moms, partners, and friends. I learn about their relationships on a pretty superficial level so I can’t really answer how deep that support goes with much authority.”
Me: What kind of changes does your project hope to accomplish in the world and what do you need to get there?
Mary: “The Doula Project’s vision is to create a society in which all pregnant people have access to the care and support they need during their pregnancies and the ability to make healthy decisions, whether they face birth, miscarriage, stillbirth, fetal anomaly, or abortion. To help facilitate this, we operate under two main priorities 1) growing our local work and supporting our community of doulas and 2) creating a national movement of doulas who work across the spectrum of pregnancy.
For us to accomplish change on a broad level, we need doulas and medical professionals around the country to embrace our mission of providing compassionate care to people across the spectrum of pregnancy. We are currently creating a replicable full spectrum model for doulas to follow in their own communities. We are developing start-up guides, a training toolkit, and grassroots fundraising and volunteer management resources. We think it is still possible to create a sustainable volunteer run organization and that, with the right tools, activists all around the country and world where abortion is legal will be able to provide this service to their community. We are talking to doulas in several different cities right now and helping them get started. The Seattle/Olympia area, L.A., Greensboro and Asheville, NC and Atlanta, to name a few, have already organized groups of abortion doulas and are looking for clinics to offer their services to.
We are also holding a National Radical Doula Meet-up with RadicalDoula.com (Miriam Perez) next summer to help doulas working across the spectrum of pregnancy connect and to train new activists on our model of care. This is an area of our work in which having a background in the reproductive justice movement has been so priceless for me: the aspect of communities connecting to and supporting other communities to make radical change.”
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