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Justice, access, support: A conversation with the Boston Doula Project

There is little less cute than Catholic Church decor during the Bush administration. Especially when the theme is abortion. 

I’m talking specifically of the poster that hung at the back of our warehouse of a church when I was a chubby, tan kid. Glossy, accusatory, and dark, it featured a photograph of a tragic-looking woman, face obscured by shadow. “Abortion burned a hole in my soul and changed me forever,” it proclaimed to all passerby with uteruses, hands-down winning the most-shamey-Catholic-poster award.

My lapsed-Catholic, Gore-and-Kerry-voting, loud-and-proud feminist, Our Bodies, Ourselves mother (went to mass every week; still shunned by nun for opposing War in Iraq, because that makes sense) taught us to be pro-choice like we were anti-war: It was the right thing.

It is no wonder we receive very mixed messages about abortion. And with abortion rights under continued attack across the country — isn’t it strange that Republican presidential hopefuls just happen to suddenly care about reproductive health the closer we get to November 2016? — these mixed messages have very real, very material effects on our lives.

In the midst of this (and we are always in the midst of this), I recently received an email over one of my feminist lists: “Want to be an abortion doula? Apply now for our summer 2015 Abortion Doula Training!”

The email is from the Boston Doula Project, the Boston manifestation of a national movement for “full-spectrum” doula care — or doulas who provide support across a full range of pregnancy experiences, including abortion. I have apparently been living under a reproductive-rights rock, because despite the growth in this movement over the last several years, I was totally unfamiliar with the work abortion doulas do.

Knowing it sounded incredibly important, I called up Sarah Whedon, Co-Director of the Boston Doula Project, to learn more .

RG: What does the Boston Doula Project do?

SW: We provide free doula support for people who are having abortions, and we train people in those skills.

RG: What does that support consist of?

SW: Doula support is compassionate, non-medical support. It can include physical support, emotional support, informational support, spiritual support, and sometimes practical support, and it depends on the needs of the person who is having the abortion. It also depends on the bigger context where it’s happening — so there are doula projects doing this kind of work around the country doing different kinds of support.

Access to abortion varies pretty widely around the country, and so what is really needed and what folks are able to provide vary because of that. I can speak most clearly about what we do here in Boston, and I think it’s important to be aware that we are part of a movement that is adapting the idea of doula support to other situations.

RG: Are there other centers like yours?

The broader context is that the abortion doula movement really had its roots in some folks who were doing birth doula work who were interested in taking the skills of doulas and providing that same kind of compassionate support for people for any pregnancy outcome, and they started The Doula Project in New York City, and to the best of my understanding of the history, that has inspired folks around the country to do this kind of work.

I personally was living in San Francisco when the Bay Area Doula Project hosted their first abortion doula training from trainers from New York, and when I got to Boston I connected with some other folks who had already started laying some groundwork for a center here.

That was in 2013. In January 2014, we hosted our first abortion doula training. We are very much building on and inspired by and supported by and could not be doing the work we are doing without these other groups who have gone before us. And we also stay connected to them and a bunch of other groups through the Full-Spectrum Reproductive Support Network. That organization connects abortion doula and full spectrum doula groups across the country. It’s really exciting. It’s a rapidly growing movement.

RG: What was your and others’ motivation for getting trained?

SW: People come with a lot of different motivations, and I would hesitate to say why each individual doing this work is doing it, but a big piece of it is that we say the ways in which abortion access is getting restricted, and it’s getting harder to access abortions, and it feels really scary for a lot of us.

And one piece of the puzzle of keeping abortion safe and accessible and legal is providing this kind of one-on-one support, because it can help that one individual to access their abortion, but also because if a doula expresses to that individual through their action, “You a person who is having an abortion, you are worthy of support, you are a good person and you deserve holistic support in whatever way you need or want it,” then maybe that person would be more bold about speaking publicly about the importance of abortion access.

It has been important to us in the Boston Doula Project to really be attentive to the needs and voices of folks who are marginalized and who have particularly big challenges in accessing abortion and getting the support that they need, and that has meant in particular really paying attention to holding anti-racist values and really paying attention to gender-inclusive values.


Okay, stop here — Reina again. When Whedon says the bit about communicating that people choosing abortion are “worthy of support,” I get very excited, because I realize something I have not realized before. I realize that even in progressive circles, we often talk about abortion in a way that implies failure. That the pregnancy was a mess-up, a mistake, and now you have to go get an abortion to fix your mistake (you dirty uterus). Abortion is pitched as the ghostly double of brought-to-term pregnancy — a covert experience of cramps and blood minus the shining, pure, redeeming baby.

Redeeming is an important point. We are delivered of our cramps and our blood and our sex — our sex, our sex — of unruly nipples and vaginal secretions if, and only if, the result is cleansing, pure: A child. Preferably white and able-bodied and high-income, if you can swing that, and definitely within the confines of marriage. (This, consequentially, is why lesbians are screwed.)

Which is fucked, right? Children are great. I sometimes get $15/hour to watch them. My mom thinks me and my sisters are awesome. But when we deny the dignity of abortion — in short, treating birth as redeeming us of the original sin of our sexualities — we instrumentalize human life.

The idea that people deserve support regardless of their pregnancy outcome absolutely turns this on its head. Rather than thinking of our reproductive lives as a straight road to babies, with other pregnancies dead ends and roadblocks along the way — mess-ups for which we do not deserve support — this kind of thinking validates the full complexity of our reproductive experiences as innately important, innately deserving, because — and here is the radical thought — we are innately important and deserving.

People who can get pregnant are innately important and deserving. You know, just like everyone else.

A lot of progressive rhetoric on abortion poses itself as faintly apologetic. Prim. Conciliatory. Like a lady apologizing for not being able to come to tea. Ah yes, Suzette, it is regrettable, but I’m afraid I cannot attend your tete-a-tete this afternoon. I am so sorry.

But more and more lately, women and feminists and reproductive rights activists and people across the country are articulating a wild thing:  We should not have to apologize.

We deserve support.

And that idea is political.

RG: I’m really struck by the idea of giving support no matter what the pregnancy outcome is.

SW: We are totally non-judgmental in our approach. We take the position that our clients know best what is right for them and it is our job to be relentlessly supportive of them.

RG: Conservatives so often say, you know, abortion is something that wounds women psychologically forever, in an attempt to limit our reproductive freedom, and I think that can make it hard sometimes to have progressive conversations about what women might experience when they get abortions. 

SW: I think that there has been the position in places in the pro-choice movement that we have to talk about abortion in really particular ways for political expediency, and so that’s an astute observation that is relevant to the work that doulas do. Doulas recognize that abortion experiences can be complicated and they can be different for different people, and for one person the emotional support they might want could be mirroring back that it’s okay that for them it’s not that big a deal, and the emotional support that another person might really need is somebody who will listen compassionately as they talk about things that are hard for them or challenging, and that it can be okay to have difficult feelings about an abortion and that it can be okay for that to be hard and still choose the abortion, still have that be the right thing to do.

This is not just abortion doulas who are saying that — there are a lot of individuals and organizations in reproductive rights and reproductive justice spaces who are saying we need to tell our full complicated stories of abortion and honor that and have that be okay and not be pigeonholed into there being “good” abortion narratives that we can tell — my air quotes, my scare quotes here — versus the “bad” abortion narrative that is not politically useful. I see a lot of folks who are trying to make spaces for the full range of abortion stories and experience.


A few minutes after the interview — I’m sitting on my bed at 10:15 on a green summer morning, hot pink laptop burning my legs, thinking over what Whedon said — I get an email from Whedon:

Reflecting after our call, I wonder if I overemphasized the cultural politics that motivate abortion doula work. Another major motivation is human caring. The abortion doulas I’ve gotten to know and work with have been amazingly thoughtful, caring people who really want to give their time and energy in service of their clients feeling supported, nurtured, and empowered.

Supported, nurtured, and empowered. Jesus Christ, what would the world be if we all felt that way? Seriously, what would it be?

Imagine it for a second. Imagine waking up every day and feeling supported, nurtured, empowered. In sickness and health, in abstinence and sex, in pregnancy and abortion, no matter what you decided to do with, or whether you had, a uterus, a vagina. No matter what you choose. Unconditionally. No matter what you goddamn choose.

It’s kind of enough to burn a hole in your soul and change you forever: That vision of dignity.

If you are interested in accessing abortion doula services or other full-spectrum doula services, or interested in learning more about abortion doula training, you can find the Full-Spectrum Reproductive Support Network’s list of resources here.

Header image via.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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