What Is An Abortion Doula?

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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.

I vividly remember the squeeze of her hand when the cramping grew uncomfortable and laughing with her as we discussed politics and our favorite comedian's nightly break down of current events — the sounds of my abortion procedure fading into the background. I had never heard of an abortion doula before I met one, so I had no idea how vital this unique support person would be during my in-clinic surgical abortion. But she was. Having someone focus on me, and only me, as the contents of my uterus were emptied, and I gained back control over my own body made all the difference.

While most people think of live births when they hear the word doula, a growing number of doulas provide their services during abortions. Carly Manes, a birth and abortion doula practicing in Washington, D.C. as a volunteer with the D.C. Doulas For Choice Collective, has supported over 800 people through their abortion procedures. "An abortion doula, or an abortion emotional support person — people use different terms, but those are the two primary ones someone would come across — is a person who is able to emotionally and physically support someone through the process of an abortion, either surgical in a clinic or medical at home," Manes tells Bustle. "They're someone who has the tools to be present emotionally and physically."

While the physician and nurses are focused on the lower half of your body, Manes says, an abortion doula is focused on the top half of your body — "your mind and your heart." Not every clinic provides volunteer abortion doula services, and a patient isn't required to use those services if a clinic does offer them. But, according to Manes, the benefits of having a doula present can't be overstated, especially if the patient is obtaining care from a clinic that doesn't allow personal support people to be present during procedures. In those cases, an abortion doula can act as a stand-in friend.

"I think the benefits of having an abortion doula present during your procedure is that they’re the one person in the room who is solely focused on your emotional wellbeing and being there to help you navigate any feelings you have, whether that feeling is joy, whether that feeling is relief, whether that feeling is sadness, whether it’s a mix of all those feelings," she says. There is no one "right" way to feel before, during, or after your abortion procedure, of course, but the majority of people having abortions feel relief, 95 percent of patients do not regret their decision, and people having abortions are more likely to feel regret, sadness, and anger about the pregnancy than the abortion itself.

"An abortion doula is there to simply support you, and in whatever way that support looks like, compared to the doctors and nurses who are there to carry out the procedure and make sure, physically, everything is going right."

Abortion has been around for as long as people have been giving birth, and just like people have been assisting and supporting live births for centuries, people have been assisting and supporting abortions. Currently, there isn't a national network or database of abortion doulas, but rather 30 or so individual collectives scattered across the country. According to Mane, the best way to find a collective in your area is to Google "abortion doula collective," or speak with the nearest health care clinic that provides abortions to see if they offer those services or have any information about a nearby collective.

The Doula Project, located in New York City, was the first abortion doula collective in the country and was founded in 2007. According to the organization's website, while it was initially established to focus solely on abortion, "the presence of those who came to abortion clinics because of miscarriage and lethal fetal anomaly" changed the direction of the project. Now, The Doula Project provides volunteer doulas to be present at every imaginable reproductive outcome, even partnering with the pro-choice adoption agency Spence-Chapin to provide doulas for live births. And because traditional abortion services can be expensive, The Doula Project partners with clinics and hospitals to provide doulas free of charge and to low-income pregnant people who wouldn't otherwise be able to have a doula present.

There are a few things you can expect from an abortion doula if you choose to have one present during your abortion procedure. "You can expect for the doula to introduce themselves and to get your consent first," Mane says. She says she gives patients her first name, establishes herself as the volunteer doula, and lets the patient know what she can offer them — a blanket if they're cold, a hand to hold, and answers to any questions they may have. Mane says abortion doulas will direct any medical questions to the doctor and/or nurse, but they are able to answer basic questions concerning abortion care, particularly the aftercare: how long should a patient expect to bleed, how intense is the cramping, etc.

"We bring our patients water or juice afterwards, we can debrief their feelings and their thoughts, and if they need a tissue we will bring them tissue boxes," Manes says. "We just want to make sure they feel held throughout the experience and that they have the emotional and physical support they need in order to move forward."

Manes completed a two-day training in order to become a volunteer abortion doula. Like doulas who attend live births, she does not have a medical degree. "In the first day [of training] we learned more technical knowledge and information on what actually is an abortion," Mane says. "What is an abortion at 12 weeks, what does an abortion between 12 and 24 weeks look like, and what does an abortion after 24 weeks looks like. Just getting clear on the instruments that are used and the language that’s used." Manes says on the second day she learned more about the role of a doula, more about doula language, and how to show up in a medical setting for people who are having abortions. "[We learned] what language we should use, how to make people feel comfortable, breathing techniques to help people who are awake during their procedure, and all of that knowledge and guidance to support someone through their abortion."

If you're interested in becoming a volunteer abortion doula, Mane says you should locate your nearest abortion doula collective to see if there are any opportunities in your area. If you live in or around New York City, you can sign up for alerts from The Doula Project on when the next application period begins. If you're in the Washington, D.C. area, you can learn more about the D.C. for Doulas for Choice Collective's volunteer opportunities here.

I remember how incredible it was to have someone focused on my mental and emotional wellbeing during my abortion. I remember thinking "this is nice" when my abortion doula laughed with me because, for me personally, the procedure wasn't a big deal. In the 10 or so minutes that my abortion lasted, I had someone in the room who made me feel seen, validated, safe, and supported — something every pregnant person deserves, regardless of the outcome of their pregnancy.

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