On Being an Abortion Doula

The range of emotions involved in helping women terminate pregnancies

Steve Snodgrass/flickr

“She was chit-chatty at first,” began full-spectrum doula Annie Robinson, describing one of her first clients. “She didn’t seem anxious, didn’t seem like she particularly had much to say. And then, the [abortion] procedure began and I stood beside her, holding her hand, and she went into this other zone. She turned to me and just started going back in time to when she was six years old, eight years old, just telling me these horrific stories of sexual violence—abuse that her body had been subject to. It was astounding to witness—to feel palpably how the body holds memory—holds trauma. It was profound and it was an honor to be there. When we’re seized by something that needs to be shared, it’s so crucial for someone to be there to receive it, because to share it is to let it go.”

Robinson is one of over 20 volunteers for The Doula Project, a New York City-based nonprofit organization. The organization was started in 2007 as a way to provide caregivers to women undergoing abortions. In the words of the project’s mission statement, their doulas offer “all of the benefits of what is typically known to be the territory of birth doulas: pain management and relaxation techniques, information and education about pregnancy, and above all, emotional support and empathy.”

In 2009, the project expanded to encompass birth-work as well, though the majority of their clients are still women terminating pregnancies.

I met with the 27-year-old Robinson to discuss her experiences in this role over the past two years.

Why is the work of The Doula Project important?

I believe that when you’re going through something that’s morally and physically exhausting and confusing, it’s so important to be seen—to have your emotions and your physical being recognized and acknowledged. It’s important for the providers too. I mean, provider burnout, and distress, and trauma is something I’m very concerned about as well. I think the presence of a doula there, modeling compassion in a very cold and often sterile environment, has repercussions for the experience of everyone involved.

Where does your compassion come from?

I think we’re all compassionate, and we can sometimes lose touch with our inherent ability. So, one of my themes in this work and in my life is self-care. When you’re practicing self-care you’re able to more easily conjure forth that compassion. For me, the more well I feel, the more able I am to be present for somebody else.

How do your clients react to your presence?

Sometimes I’ll encounter clients who are incredibly emotional and incredibly forthcoming. Others are just silent and shut down and in their box—going through the motions. Regardless, I have to bring the same core of compassion and offer it in different ways to all of these different clients. Not all of them are interested in receiving it. Of the seven I was with yesterday, five of them were not really interested in connecting. They don’t want to make eye contact. They’re resistant to my offered hand.

They’re not interested in communication, so it challenges me to get creative as to how I can provide compassionate care to someone who is seemingly not wanting to receive it. I believe, nonetheless, that they’re still being affected by my presence, even on an unconscious level.

Why do you think they don’t want compassion?

It’s not that they don’t want the compassion, they just don’t want connection. They just don’t want to be anchored in this moment, perhaps because it’s too much. It gets too real, or it gets too painful. We all have moments in life where we just don’t want to acknowledge where we are right now. To connect with somebody, and to receive what somebody is offering brings you quickly into the present moment, and sometimes people just want to avoid that. And, that’s okay. That’s their way of coping.

Do you experience any of those negative emotions yourself?

First of all, I would say that I don’t consider any emotions negative. I consider some emotions challenging. But, all are important to be having and valuable towards healing if you’re really experiencing them. I’m challenged all the time, both emotionally and cognitively. There are certainly moments where I question myself and feel frustrated and feel hurt. But, all of that needs to be taken outside and dealt with on my own time. I’m there to receive and hold what the client’s experience might be.

What do those emotions feel like?

I feel a heaviness. I feel saturated sometimes. I feel lit up and glowing. Often I feel like I’m glowing from being there in such a real moment. Some of the connections are really joyful, and funny, and loving. It’s not just a gloomy dreary period of time that we spend together.

How does the abortion doula role compare to being a birth doula?

There are different emotional textures that you encounter in these rooms. I think also the aftermath is different. One of the things that really draws me to this work is that I’m really interested in loss and grief, and that’s what’s happening here. Even if the grief is celebratory, it still is grief and it still is loss. There’s something lost with birth too—loss of pregnancy, loss of the in-utero experience.

I had some devastating losses as a very young child and ongoing through life—mostly the deaths of people very close to me. I’ve grown from my exploration of what it is to lose and to understand that life is all about loss. How can we embrace that? How can that be something that shapes us, and colors us, and gives us substance by appreciating what it is that absence offers? I’ve never had an abortion. I have never experienced that loss, but I think there are overarching themes of the loss experience that are communicable.

Does that communication work in both directions? 

Absolutely. There’s a reciprocity, too. I gain so much for my own grief process from witnessing how other people experience their loss. I’m touched and fueled by this work, by these courageous people.

What have you learned that’s helped you in your own grief process?

How vulnerability is where it’s at. To be courageous enough to be vulnerable with someone else can be so healing. The people who I encounter who just expose themselves to me are inspiring because I have a lot of boundaries about what I’m willing to tell people and in what moments. Ultimately, I’m very forthcoming with my stories in many contexts, but they’re narratives that I’ve already authored and I feel comfortable presenting them. But, when I’m actually in an embodied experience of panic or grief, can I reach out to somebody then?

What’s your most important personal narrative?

Certainly there are a lot of narratives around loss. I was adopted as a baby, and so there’s a theme of abandonment that I’ve entwined with the various deaths that I’ve encountered—feeling like people leave me. So for me, the narrative that comes out of that is: Who is around? Am I with myself? How can I not abandon myself? And how, by showing up for other people, can I also have that turned on me? When I show up for other people, whoever I’m with is also there with me. Part of that is also the transience of life; that everything is loss. So great: Let’s be here now and appreciate where we are and who we’re with.

How did you come to your view on abortion?

I was raised by this amazing woman who was a staunch feminist from the get-go. She really instilled in me a spirit of being in charge of our bodies and of our lives. I don’t recall learning what abortion was. I did have stories about my mother miscarrying before she chose to adopt, so I had some understanding of that.

How aware are you of your opposition, the pro-life movement?

I’m quite aware of them. I mean, how could one not be? It doesn’t come into the work for me. I think that politics can fuel our passion and bring us to the project, but when we’re in the clinic, politics can’t be there.

How do you relate to those people?

I have a lot of compassion for everybody. I think there's a lot of misinformation. I think we all have a lot of wounds that we carry around, and that the stories that we tell ourselves about how we got those wounds inform our politics and inform how we relate to people and how we judge them. And I think that I do have compassion for the people who so condemn and castigate abortion as a moral sin, because they I think have wounds that haven't been tended to, and may never be.

How do you think they came to their perspective?

Culture. The culture that you're in. The family that you're in. Which is how I came to mine. My culture, my climate, my family instilled these values in me. So, I can understand that we go through the same process. But, this sense of ownership they have, about somehow having a right to judge other people, I don’t do that. And I think a lot of pro-choicers do have a lot of judgment, and hatred, and anger. I don’t think it’s productive, and I don’t consider myself part of that cohort. I can get riled up about what I consider absolute abominations happening legally in a lot of ways, but I don’t hate people for it.

With culture being such a powerful force in forming beliefs, do you think that yours were inevitable for you? Could you have turned out differently?

I was born in Louisiana. My biological family is all there, but I was adopted by a couple who lives in Chicago—a very liberal couple. My life could've gone such a different way. I could've been raised in a small town in Louisiana with very conservative viewpoints and been deeply involved in the Catholic Church. Who knows?

You could be a picketer outside an abortion clinic?

I very legitimately could be. Fork in the road.