By Leah Finnegan
Quietly working at a Manhattan hospital is a small group of women doing what even those who advocate for abortion might wince at: guiding women through late-term abortions.
In the midst of yet another round of abortion wars in Congress, the Doula Project operates in purposeful obscurity to support women who choose to have abortions, when they have abortions.
Lauren Mitchell, a petite redhead from Williamsburg, is one such doula, a Greek term meaning a woman — in antiquated times, a servant — who provides non-medical assistance during childbirth. Mitchell performs the typical doula tasks with her patients: she holds women’s hands, strokes their hair; talks to them about nothing in particular. Those who come to this hospital “probably don’t have health insurance or don’t know they have options under the law,” Mitchell says (the doulas interviewed for this article requested that the hospital, which specializes in late-term abortions, remain undisclosed). Many of the women are under familial pressure. Many of them are forced to go through the procedure alone.
That’s where the abortion doulas step in, widening the scope of the doula world as they work. Traditionally, doula communities are largely devoid of controversy and provocation. Doula work is considered the business of birth, and most would never contemplate their jobs in the context of abortion. But Miriam Perez, 25, an editor at Feministing and author of the blog Radical Doula, found that some people like herself felt isolated in their doula communities because they were queer, pro-choice or uninterested in making a full-time career of doula work. For Perez, it was also an issue of reconciling her reproductive rights work with being a doula.
And so the Doula Project was imagined when Perez met the Mitchell and the project’s co-founder, Mary Mahoney, at a meeting of The New York Birth Coalition in 2007. The idea of installing a doula unit at a local hospital or clinic became a passion project that Mitchell and Mahoney eventually carried to fruition (Perez had relocated to Washington, D.C.). And it continues to grow. Besides the partnership with the Manhattan hospital, the project appoints abortion doulas on an individual basis to women undergoing abortions at other hospitals and adoption doulas to Spence Chapin Adoption Agency. It’s also set to open a chapter in Atlanta.
There are 20 active abortion doulas in New York, mostly women under 30, and they work in shifts on a volunteer basis, serving up to 25 patients a week. To become doulas, they must complete 20 hours of clinical training, but the bulk of the job is intuitive — being present with the patient before and after the abortion, responding to her cues and providing necessary support. The intimacy of the experience can be wrenching. “What you get very used to is this weird mix of tragedy and relief and sex and death — this wild variety of emotions,” Mitchell says. “There’s always this interesting mix of remorse and relief.”
Even with the success of the project, though, working radical doulas remain a rare breed. “A lot of people are interested in this politically, but don’t have the warmth,” Mitchell says. “You need more than just your conviction to do this.” Mitchell remembers feeling “sick with her own privilege” during her first abortion doula experience. “I was sitting between two women — one was a cashier at a 99-cent store and the other worked at a dry cleaner. Neither spoke English,” she says.
But it’s a strong sense of purpose and ardor that buoys doulas during the most intense situations. In one instance, Mitchell was with a woman undergoing a late-term procedure in which the woman’s fetus was given a shot of KCL, the same substance used in lethal injections. The woman, lying on a medical bed with her hands behind her head because her bottom half had to be kept sterile, could either look left and see an array of syringes or right and see the ultrasound monitor with her dead fetus on it. Mitchell, standing in the space behind the woman’s head, had met her only moments before. The woman turned her head and buried her face in Mitchell’s arms.
The project as a whole has assisted in 500 abortions. It is still in essence a side job for Mitchell and Mahoney — they both work; Mitchell as a health educator at the same hospital in which the doulas are stationed, Mahoney an assistant director at the Pro-Choice Public Education Project. But they spend a great deal of time with the project as it evolves, making sure to keep its foundation intact. They are doulas first, after all, to give women support that they might not otherwise get. “You’re not going to take this person’s pain away,” Mitchell says, “But you can help guide them through it.”