Understanding The Work Of Abortion Doulas In A Post-Roe V. Wade America

Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

The matter of abortion has been a hot button issue since it became a politicized one. With the landmark case of Roe V. Wade on January 23, 1973, abortion became legal, only to be overturned on June 24, 2022. In the forty-nine years between those two dates, the reproductive rights of birthing people were thought to be safe and secure. However, Black women, femmes, and trans people have known this to be a falsehood for some time. This group is aware that they are the most vulnerable when drastic legislative changes occur, but the most influential work happens beyond and outside of legislation. Most of the real work has been happening in mutual aid and abolitionist spaces with the help of Black abortion doulas.

“A birthing doula is a support person, very similar to a nurse without that technical training,” says Bry Reed, a Black femme birthing doula from Baltimore, Maryland. “A supportive presence with various sets of skills that ease the experience whether it be surgical or medical that folks seeking abortion care are receiving. Sometimes abortion doulaship can look like setting up appointments at clinics, long-term emotional care like a long talk, or a mix of both helping with time off from work or transportation to the abortion.”

Reed trained for two months, receiving technical training and more before becoming an abortion doula. Her work also extends to aftercare, where she may cook clients food to make them comfortable. In the year following the overturn, she says that she has had more conversations about reproductive justice with close friends that are not in reproductive justice spaces. “I think since 2022, folks are more aware of the ways that bodily autonomy and self-determination is up to the discretion of a court or a legislature. I think people come into their conversations with me very intensely,” she says.

“I help with whatever a client needs and whatever that looks like for them. I have transported people to their apportionments. I have sat in clinics and escorted people inside of a clinic,” says Mel, a Black femme abortion doula with vast knowledge on aborttions. “In the 1800s, doctors would perform abortions. People were having them done privately due to sexual assault. Abortion is just a chosen miscarriage, versus your body doing it for you. During the 20s and 30s, they were still taboo, but they were being done and being privatized through doctors. Black and Brown people didn’t get access because our healthcare was and still isn’t the best. During the 50s and 60s when women started to reclaim their bodies it became a political issue where the state had to have some say.”

Ash Williams, a Black trans doula located in North Carolina, trained with the Carolina abortion fund to become a doula. While working there, Williams developed an abortion dual-track curriculum. Within it, the difference between reproductive health rights and justice, and the history of the reproductive movement are explained. Participants get to learn that abortion access is just one aspect of justice but also consider how incarceration, criminality, and attacks on queer and trans people are important as well. They now train abortion doulas in person and virtually.

As someone who has previously had an abortion, Mel, offers a much-needed space free of judgment to help client’s decompress. “Most people that I’ve supported post-operation just need that emotional support. I didn’t have anyone to reach out to after my abortion and I wish I would have. I let people know that I’ve had an abortion and have experienced it myself. It makes people more willing to let me support them.” Mel continues, “Not so long ago, abortion was looked at as health care until men got involved. I would do my ancestors a disservice if I didn’t let people know this is a part of life. There is no reason for someone to dictate to you what do with your body. It has radicalized me. I’m not gonna let the people that need the support and services go by the wayside.”

Bry Reed explains, “I was already in the activism space. I know a lot of healers. In the past two or three years, I’ve gone deeper into learning about community healing through restorative practices and circle keeping. I’ve been talking to a lot of dope Black people who are thinking about how to connect deeper with cardinality, without these institutions that set up the cages.” The knowledge of the harm that is done by disregarding these urgent skills was known by a close friend of Reed who helped train them in preparation for the possible overturn of Roe V. Wade. “Someone who is near and dear to me was already an abortion doula and was thinking about training other Black people in these skills. In the abortion and reproductive space, folks have been ready for the bottom to fall out for years. They have been training people in these skills knowing that there were limits to legality and what the law could do for bodily autonomy.”

While many people already in circles discussing abolition and abortion were aware of the possibilities for concern, most people were not, which created panic and fear. “In the aftermath of Roe V. Wade, we saw a lot of people craving this reactionary rapid response that we are used to with rapid response community organizing, and the difference with abortion work is that it always has to be proactive because gestation is proactive. No matter when the court date is, no matter when the ban goes into effect gestation doesn’t stop. People need this healthcare,” says Reed.

Williams says more people are utilizing their services, becoming hip to the existence of abortion doulas, and that there are programs to help them. However, Williams says that their work has not changed drastically as one might think. “We as abortion doulas, helpers, and people who’ve had abortions like myself, we’ve always been navigating what it’s like to try to have abortions where there aren’t many clinics and where abortion is really restricted. North Carolina and in a lot of ways the South has always seen these things. As the laws have shifted and changed again, we’re having to get more creative, we’re having to make sure we know what the regional landscape is like so that we can get people the support they need.”

When asked how the overturn of Roe V. Wade affects Black people specifically, Williams explains that the South is experiencing overwhelming restrictions. When thinking about impact, we must consider Black people, poor people, and people who have no access to medical services and community. “I live in a rural community where there is only one abortion clinic. I’ve been thinking about helping people navigate these realities, like the 72-hour waiting period, and traveling to a clinic. A lot of people that I’m able to support and that reach out to me are Black people. So, it’s important that I’m trained.”

Mel says the overturn inspired her to go back and sharpen her skillset to best aid clients during this new reality, including letting them know about their options, including the abortion pill and services done remotely. “Ever since Roe V. Wade has been overturned, I’ve taken additional training to become a self-managed doula. Not only can I support you in a clinic but if you want to do it at home, I can support you at home.”

When asked what they would like those who are new to education about reproductive health to know, the doulas say, it’s time they familiarize themselves with this work in a post-Roe V. Wade world, because all forms of oppression are connected.  

“I hope that people will continue to make connections between reproductive oppression and the fight for abortion. I hope that people will continue to make connections between the aspects of reproductive justice, and justice in other areas like climate change, and police brutality. I’m hopeful that folks are making these connections for themselves and not just pouring into the hot-button issue of the moment. I’m really hoping that there is some longevity in the fight because we’re definitely going to need it.” Williams says, “I would like to remind people to fund abortions locally and give to their local, non-Planned Parenthood abortion funds. Circulating good information, we can do shift work in our own lives. Abortion is very common, and I know a lot would shift if people were willing to share their own stories. And I would say, if folks are willing to take it a step further, consider becoming an abortion doula.”

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