When the role of the doula was created in the ‘60s, it was designed as a way to support people through childbirth. But in 2007, when as a trained birth doula I found myself working in the reproductive rights and justice movement, it made total sense to me and other doulas to bring those same skills to supporting people having abortions and miscarriages. From that work, The Doula Project was born, and a whole new movement of full-spectrum doulas emerged.
It was practical work, in many ways. Because of policies in hospitals and clinics providing abortion services, people were often alone during their procedures. As official volunteers working with the clinic or hospital, we could serve as hand holders and support people. We could help folks get through the discomfort of the procedure, and spend time with them as they recovered.
But it was also political work. Being a pro-choice doula was controversial within many birth activist circles. There were many conservative Christian midwives and doulas who didn’t think doulas should support people during abortions. In this moment, as those same conservative Christians have succeeded in removing the right to abortion access nationally, the political nature of that work is even more clear.
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I had trained as a doula in college, after a college course had introduced me to the ways in which the U.S. had overmedicalized childbirth care, and created an environment that was often unsupportive and risky. But I had been pro-choice long before I became a doula, so to me it was entirely natural to support people across the full spectrum of their reproductive lives.
The right to abortion was one of the earliest things I remember arguing with my conservative Cuban father about. I don’t even know where my viewpoint came from, but from a really young age I understood that people should be able to choose whether to be pregnant.
I had my first (and only) pregnancy scare at 17. It was more anxiety than anything else — my boyfriend and I always used condoms. But I knew that nothing was 100 percent, so when I was waiting for my period to come I furiously Googled. It only fueled my stress because it turns out that the symptoms of early pregnancy are very similar to premenstrual symptoms.
In the few hours between Googling about my symptoms at the Duke University lab where I had a summer internship and getting the negative pregnancy test at my friend’s house, I knew only one thing: I was not going to have a baby. Growing up in North Carolina in the ’80s and ’90s, accessing an abortion wouldn’t have been an easy thing to make happen, but it wouldn’t have been insurmountable. Despite being in the liberal part of the state, if 17-year-old me were in that situation now, my plan might involve traveling hundreds of miles.
In college, I did very basic activist things, like taping up flyers in the bathrooms with statistics about abortion access. I helped lead the college delegation to the 2004 March for Women’s Lives. And when I graduated, I went to work for an organization I learned about that day on the Washington Mall. I was excited to see their Spanish/English signs, not knowing there were Latinx groups working on these issues. Now known as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, that organization taught me about the political framework that would take me from an intuitive sense that everyone should be able to choose whether they were pregnant to a full-blown political analysis that understood all of the complex things necessary for someone to truly have that right to choose.
Reproductive justice, led by Black women and other women of color, made me understand all of the connections between autonomy over pregnancy and my myriad political concerns. It wasn’t just about abortion. It was about the right to have a child when you wanted one, the right to housing, the right to clean water and nutritious food. That framework crystalized my interest in improving people’s birth experiences and also people’s access to abortion, which underpinned my writing and organizing through Radical Doula.
I was part of this movement, in one way or another, until around 2017. By that time, I was really burned out. The Trump win had flattened me and made me feel a depth of despair I hadn’t really known up until that point. I was writing about race and gender at Colorlines, a role that I loved, but once I had to cover the news in the Trump era, I couldn’t handle more than a year. I couldn’t get up every morning and search the headlines for the latest setback to cover. I took a big step back from political writing and from reproductive justice movement work.
Being a part of a movement that is constantly losing is demoralizing. And this feels like one of the biggest losses of my lifetime. Even though we knew it was coming for weeks (and honestly, years) I felt frozen when I saw the official news of Roe being overturned. I sat on my couch and numbly scrolled, texted a few people, and struggled to even take my dog for a walk.
To understand the current attack on abortion rights, we need to understand that the right-wing attack on abortion is connected to the right-wing push against pandemic precautions, the advance of gun rights, the lack of access to health care, housing and clean water — it’s all connected. This isn’t the first major blow to our communities in this far right era, and it definitely won’t be the last.
I’m not personally impacted by this decision. I came out as queer at the end of college, and rarely have sex that could lead to pregnancy. I’m in a phase of my life where more of my peers are trying to get pregnant than trying to prevent it. And I live in Washington, D.C., a place that is unlikely to ever ban abortion (although Congress does have the power to meddle). But I’ve always known that this work was about way more than my individual situation.
In many ways, I think this moment is just a continued backlash against the fact that we elected Barack Obama to lead this country in 2008. He was not even a progressive politician, but electing the first Black president was a giant milestone for a country founded on the backs of enslaved African people and the genocide of Indigenous communities. Seeing the current activation of the far right as part of a cultural response to Obama’s election is not a hard leap to make considering that the anti-abortion stance of the religious right actually resulted from a desire to protect segregated schools. According to Politico, the religious right didn’t decide to take up abortion as a major political issue until 1979, when they needed a more palatable issue than segregation with which to campaign against President Jimmy Carter’s second term.
I think this is the point in this essay where I’m supposed to come up with some inspiring argument about how the arc of history bends towards justice. But the honest truth is I don’t have a lot of hope to offer right now. I, personally, have been trying to cultivate optimism ever since Trump was elected. Not as a huge political practice, but as a small one that helps me get through each day with less fear. Political moments like the current are not easy ones in which to feel hopeful.
One of the things I enjoyed most about volunteering as an abortion doula was that I could see that spending just a few hours with someone could have an impact. I did very little, really. I was there. I was a person with no other job than to accompany them. I had no agenda. Usually in the recovery room after the procedure I would learn more of their story, and also hear gratitude for my presence. It’s work that many more people are now engaged in, with groups around the country working to offer this kind of full-spectrum support.
It’s so overwhelming when we learn again and again that large political institutions are not on our side, that they are not designed to protect us or support us, and that a document written two hundred years ago by white slave owners is a good foundation for our human rights – it’s not. But still, when I feel powerless, I try to remember the impact that small acts of care and kindness can have. We will do what we have always done to survive. We turn toward each other. We establish and strengthen networks of mutual aid and care. We share with each other. We organize, and we create families and communities that are buffers against the impacts of the next disaster to come.