It was like any other study hall, until it wasn’t. I vividly remember reading the two-page, hand-written plea from my classmate over and over, before drafting my response: she had had sex without a condom, she thought she was pregnant, and she needed to know if someone could help. I wasn’t even old enough to drive her to the clinic myself, but we both knew we would get her there.
I wish I could pinpoint the moment in my life when I become impassioned about reproductive justice. People always assume I grew up in a sexually liberal environment, where one could perhaps openly discuss such matters with parents or siblings — but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I learned what sex was by watching re-runs of The Simpsons. People knew I had relatives who worked in women’s health, and after a few pro-choice rants and an impassioned speech in English class (for an assignment that required nothing beyond writing a paper using 40 specified vocabulary words), I gained a reputation in school as the sex-crisis liaison. I brought classmates to clinics, I bought condoms, I drove girls, boys, and couples to pharmacies out of town so they could feel comfortable buying condoms for themselves. I wasn’t aware at the time, but this was just the first stage of my career in reproductive health.
When you tell someone you’re a doula, most will picture you next to a glowing, laboring woman, perhaps with a brightly colored exercise ball, a floor-length skirt, and dreads for good measure. But when you explain that you are an abortion doula, I imagine there are few images for people to grasp at; their expressions confirm their uncertainty, their sudden disinterest, or their disapproval.
My role as an abortion doula was to be an emotional advocate and support person for women having abortions. I attended procedures at all stages of pregnancy: I distracted, I listened, I cried, I laughed, I hugged, I always offered a warm smile. The opportunity to support women during procedures — which are always emotionally complex, and very often frightening or isolating — wasn’t a gained opportunity on my part; it was an unequivocal honor. And while the transparency in which we work is entirely divergent, an abortion doula and a birth doula fundamentally have the same role; to support, honor, and advocate for women in their most vulnerable states, which in this country unfortunately crosses all reproductive boundaries.
Having made my journey towards this role fairly clear, I wanted to attempt to convey how or what it felt like to be an abortion doula, because if nothing else, it was a role that made me feel in ways I didn’t know were possible: I have never felt more human. With another woman’s hand tightly grasped around mine, always sweaty, eyes locked, coaching her through each breath as her fingers squeezed tighter, I would attempt to break the surface as she began to drown in vulnerability, by telling her what I never doubted: “You are so strong.” That moment is when I felt not only galvanized by existence itself, but humbled by the opportunity to just be there when a perfect stranger needed me. All you really have to do is be present, care, and know that it’s not about empathy — it’s about respect for the human experience and an undeniable right to bodily autonomy.
The woman in front of me has often had to keep secrets from family members or friends; she has driven far, rode planes, trains, and buses, and withstood the vile rhetoric of protesters, all in order to make a decision about her own body, her own reproduction, her own future. Being an abortion doula is about bearing witness to the culmination of a seemingly impossible journey, for a right that shouldn’t be complicated in the first place. But in those moments, it has nothing to do with the obstacles that got in their way, or the systems that attempted to derail them; it’s about their real lives and experiences. Being an abortion doula is about being present in that moment, if only to remind the women you are working with that they are not alone.
Consensual sex is a basic human right — that’s all there is to it. This right is not just about being able to have sex only when you wish to; it’s also about being able to have the outcomes you desire when you have sex. That means being protected from sexually transmitted diseases, achieving or preventing pregnancy, and having the ability to choose your own decisions about your body when any of the above doesn’t go as planned. Yet in the U.S., I see consensual sex often treated more like a privilege than a right, one that is frequently debated and manipulated by our government and society. To me, interfering with human rights in any form is a way to control society and keep our most vulnerable populations subordinate.
Today, 43 years after Roe v. Wade, abortion is still grossly restricted throughout the United States, and many women are continuously denied access to comprehensive reproductive health care on the basis of other people's preferences. It does not matter to me whether the girl who wrote me that note 13 years ago chose to continue her pregnancy. What matters is that she had the choice — she had access to the resources to help her make a decision, and she had support throughout whichever path she chose. I believe that it is important for us to remember that most women do not have those rights afforded to them — and when we let any woman stand alone, we are all part of the problem.