Welcome to Bustle's Abortion AMA column, where reproductive rights advocate and Romper editor Danielle Campoamor will speak to experts and medical professionals to answer people's questions about abortion in a way that is educational, unvarnished, and judgement free. Ask us anything.
My partner wasn't the first person to find out I was unexpectedly pregnant. In fact, he wasn't the second, either. Initially, and in a panic, I called my best friend, and then my mother, to sort through my racing thoughts and feelings. But when I did finally call him and ask that he come home so I could tell him I was pregnant, I knew what I wanted moving forward: an abortion, and for him to come with me. "Can my partner come with me to my abortion?" was the first question I asked the kind receptionist at my local Planned Parenthood, and, to my relief, she said yes. Every clinic is different though, and depending on the type of abortion procedure you are choosing and/or needing, the answer you hear might be different.
It's important to note, first and foremost, that you are under no legal obligation to bring your partner with you to your abortion procedure. Just like you're not required to discuss your abortion with your partner, you're not required to involve them in the process in any way. So if you don't feel like your partner will be supportive, feel free to leave them at home.
If you do have a supportive partner, however, and you are wondering how present they are allowed to be on the day of the procedure, know that it will likely depend on the procedure you're about to have and the clinic you're about to have it in. "For my institution, which is in a hospital, we have a small procedure room and also have the operating room. We do not allow partners in either of those spaces," Dr. Treasure Walker, Associate Program Director for the Fellowship of Family Planning and Assistant Professor at the Department of OB-GYN at NYU School of Medicine, tells Bustle via phone. It's the hospital's policy that support people aren't allowed in any operating rooms, regardless of the procedure. "But it all depends on where they're having the abortion done," she says. According to Dr. Walker, her facility, which is located inside a hospital, does allow support people to come into the recovery room, but only if the patient is alone and there aren't any additional patients waiting.
Dr. Wing Kay Fok, an OB-GYN in California and Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, a group of doctors who advocate for reproductive rights, agreed with Dr. Walker, telling Bustle that it depends on the clinic and the situation when it comes to allowing a support person into the procedure and/or operating room. "It's most important that the patient who is undergoing the abortion ask the clinic what their policy is," she says. Some facilities don't allow support people in procedure rooms (or the area surrounding procedure rooms) in order to protect the privacy of other patients. Others, like Planned Parenthood, do allow "patients to bring a friend or family member in the exam room with them," but it does depend on the facility, the procedure, and the room size.
"Different providers have different policies about who can be in the procedure room during an abortion," Gillian Dean, MD, MPH, and Senior Director of Medical services at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Bustle. "Some providers allow a friend or family member to accompany the patient. Others aren’t able to accommodate this because of the procedure room size, or staffing, or because of the patient’s choice of anesthesia." If a partner isn't able to accompany a patient into the room, Dean says there are people dedicated to supporting the patient during their procedure. "Some health centers have dedicated staff or volunteers, often called doulas, whose sole job is to provide support to patients having abortion procedures," she says. "At other health centers, there is staff (medical assistants or nurses) whose role includes both providing support to the patient and helping with the abortion procedure."
So, what can a supportive partner expect on the day of the abortion procedure? If they are not permitted back into the procedure room, Dr. Walker suggests they come prepared to wait. "They should definitely bring some snacks, water, and something to entertain themselves with if they're going to wait [in the clinic]," she says. "And if they're going to come back to the facility, then they should give their information [to the appropriate clinician] so they can be called when their partner is ready." According to Dr. Walker, a support person is most helpful if they're patient, but it is perfectly fine to ask for an estimated time the procedure will be over.
If the partner is allowed in the procedure room, Dr. Fok says the first thing the support person should know, with absolute certainty, is that they won't be asked to act in a medical capacity in any way. "I think a lot of support people who have never experienced it or don't know what to expect are worried that they'll have to physically perform a task or help in any way," she says. "But really, being a support person is 100 percent about providing emotional support for the patient."
The same qualities that make someone a good friend or partner or family member make a good support person, so having any medical knowledge of an abortion procedure is not required. "In my experience, patients are really looking for someone who understands their decision, and who agrees and supports them, to be there as a familiar face and a friend," Dr. Fok says. According to Dean, for most people an abortion feels like strong period cramps, so a support person should prepare themselves to see their loved one in some degree of pain, ranging from moderate to intense. "One thing to be aware of is that having an abortion feels different for everyone," Dean tells Bustle. "The level of discomfort can also depend on the medications the patient gets, how far into the pregnancy they are, and sometimes on their emotions about the abortion and the pregnancy."
As with anything else that deals with medical care, communication is important. "As a support person, understanding that you may be asked to sit in a certain area or move to a certain place so the nurse or physician can provide the best care possible is the most important thing [to remember in the room]," Dr. Fok tells Bustle. That's why it's just as vital to voice anything you might not be comfortable doing or handling. "You can be a support person without being in the room itself," Dr. Fok says. So voicing what you are and are not comfortable doing is important. "Partners should understand that they are there for the person having the abortion — the staff and the patient cannot and should not focus on the partner’s needs and emotions during the abortion procedure," Dean tells Bustle.
The support doesn't stop once the procedure ends, of course, so it's important to look at how a partner can continue to play a supportive role long after the abortion is over. "A lot of focus is on what to expect during the procedure and how to be there and be present," Dr. Fok says. "But your support doesn't end after the five-minute procedure in the room." From a physical standpoint, Dr. Walker advises support people to make sure their loved one has all the necessary items they need to recover correctly. "Getting the Tylenol, the Motrin, the heating pads and making sure your partner is eating and taking all the medications they need and physically recovering is important," she says.
And from an emotional standpoint, Dr. Walker says it's vital that all support people simply listen to their loved one. "It's important to recognize that rarely do women have regret, but that it depends on the circumstances," she says. "If something was wrong with the pregnancy, for example, it probably takes more time to grieve and go through the emotional loss than some people might expect." So being constantly communicative, non-judgmental, and understanding is an important part of being a supportive partner moving forward. "There is no good recipe to being a good support person, aside from being a good friend, partner, or family member," Dr. Fok tells Bustle. "Continue to voice your support and let her know that you're there for her."
Dr. Fok says that from a medical perspective, if the patient needs any care after the procedure, providers and clinics are there for them. But as far as reaching out and making sure someone is emotionally OK, having a good friend, partner, and people around them that they can talk to is really important.
I didn't have a very supportive partner following my surgical abortion. In fact, we broke up a week later after I found out he was sleeping with our neighbor. But I can say that during the procedure itself, he was incredible. He held my hand, let me squeeze arguably a little too hard when the cramping was at its most intense, and remained by my side during the seven-minute, minimally evasive surgery. And while there are many different ways to support someone going through an abortion — whether you're in the waiting room, ready to pick them up, or in the procedure room with them — at the time, my then-partner knew just what I needed in those fleeting moments when I had an abortion. Unwavering, judgment-free, emphatic support.
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