What Being an Abortion Doula Has Taught Me

Some names have been changed.

“Hi, I’m Michele. Follow me.”

I lead Angela, a woman in her mid-thirties wearing a long floral dress, through the hallway towards the procedure room. I open the door and ask, ”How are you doing?”

“I’m – I’m hanging in there,” she tells me. She’s looking around, taking in her surroundings: The florescent lights, the pastel colored floors, the paintings of flowers on the wall. She takes a breath of sterile clinic air. She’s hanging in there.

“Good,” I say with a smile. “I’ll be here to support you throughout the procedure.”

I enter the room with her and give her the changing instructions: the gown opens in the back, put a pad on your underwear, yes you can leave your bra on. “I’ll be right back to get you set up on the bed. Call if you need me.”

I step outside and Lorenza, the nurse, greets me and asks if she’s changing. I nod and she says the doctor will be ready soon. I lean against the bare white wall for a moment and reach my hand to the dispenser of Purell. Moving the goo between my fingers I let out a deep breath.

This is my fifth abortion procedure of the day. So far I have met and supported a college student near my age, a single mother of two, a tattoo artist, a patient 14 weeks along in her pregnancy, and a mother who said she could not afford to have another baby.

I rub my back and my hands press against my wrinkled blue scrubs. Stretching my neck, I prepare myself to meet more patients. I get ready for the journey I’ll encounter next.

I am a volunteer abortion doula—someone who provides non-medical emotional, physical and informational support to people terminating their pregnancies. Abortion doula collectives have emerged in the last decade in cities across the U.S.—a testament to the need for compassionate, non-judgmental support throughout the abortion experience.

Doula support can range from a hand squeeze to a shared laugh to casual small talk during the procedure. It can look like a rub of a shoulder while a patient sits in the recovery room or a conversation to distract from their nausea or a listening ear as a patient recounts their reasoning behind getting the procedure.

In its many forms, the intimate interactions between doulas and patients epitomize an enactment of new ways of relating to one another, rooted in affection and love, across boundaries and divisions. A college student like me can connect to a middle-aged mother or a religious patient may connect with a non-religious doula; moments of vulnerability, comfort, and connection, whatever that might mean for a patient, emerge and flow in and between our bodies, our smiles, our hand holds.

In a political climate of violence, shame and stigma, abortion doulas imagine and actively try to create an abortion experience characterized by love, care, and non-judgment. We counter violence with care, hate with support, and stigma with small talk and understanding.

I knock on the door and, with Angela’s permission, enter the room. “All set?” I slip on my latex gloves, and when she nods I tell her to sit at the edge of the bed—bare bottom. “The anesthetist will come in to see you and then we’ll begin the procedure. Everyone will take good care of you,” I say, once more with a smile.

“Thank you. This is my second time doing this. I had one when I was much younger,” she says. “But no one like you was here.” She hops up on the bed, her feet dangling off the edge.

“I see from your chart you gave birth recently.” I help her adjust her gown.

Her face lights up. “I did. Her name is Desiree. She’s four months. Oh, she’s the love of my life. Do you want to see a picture?”

“Absolutely.” She motions for me to grab her phone from her small pile of belongings. As she scrolls through her gallery, the anesthetist walks in and introduces himself. Angela turns the screen for us and we see a photo of her holding a sleeping girl, curled up in a pink and purple patterned blanket. She has a cheek-to-cheek wide smile on her face and her eyes glow with love.

Moments later the procedure is underway and Angela’s hand is entangled with mine. She squeezes my hand and lets out a sharp breath.

“You’re doing a great job,” I say, placing my hand on her shoulder.

When she experiences a cramp her body tries to lift up her hips and the doctor strongly instructs not to do that and keep her bottom down. She nods, letting out another long exhale.

“You know, it’s hard. The love you feel for a child… it’s nothing you’ve ever felt before. But it’s also a 24/7 job. You never stop worrying…”

“And you don’t ever sleep,” Lorenza chimes in. “I have a three year old and those first few years, I’ll never forget how little I slept,” with a chuckle.

Angela lets out a laugh. “Oh, do I know.”

I notice that her head is slipping out of the pillow and I help adjust it. As I pull back some hair behind her ears she says, “but it’s magic.” She rolls her head over to face me and her cheek meets the pillow. “Being a mother is magic.”

For me, practicing abortion doula care has profoundly shaped my understanding of abortion; it has pushed me to challenge and expand my assumptions of who gets an abortion and why. I have seen patients who terminate for so many reasons, including economic, social, religious, political and health concerns and many, like Angela, who are mothers already. And I have met with patients who feel a whole host of emotions during or after the procedure—sadness, loss, relief, happiness or indifference. I have learned that we need to expand the narrative and our understanding of abortion to more fully recognize the multiplicity of experiences and find ways to support each and every patient.

Encountering patients who come from such wide range of experiences has encouraged me, too, to complicate the dichotomous “pro-choice”/ “anti-abortion” divide and move towards reproductive justice politics, which situates abortion and reproductive life more broadly in larger systems such as class, race, and gender.

Every person should have choices over their bodily autonomy—but we should also be interrogating access to those choices and understanding that for many, abortion is complex and nuanced, and the decision to have or not have a child is intricately tied to class, race and gender.

My time as an abortion doula has also helped me work on my own selfhood—to push myself to become a more compassionate and loving daughter, friend, sister, partner and peer. So much of doula care is about being sensitive and caring; asking non-judgmental questions and lending a listening ear or a hand to hold. These behaviors—sometimes without you even realizing it—eventually extend past the clinic and seep into your daily life, improving relationships and partnerships. You begin to “doula” other people and situations in your life, forging connections in new ways.

The doctor says, “We’re halfway done, Angela. You’re doing great.”

She lets out a deep breath and looks up at me. I rub her shoulder and say, “how are you doing?”

“Hanging in there,” she says.

I smile, proud to know that I am doing work that matters—work that makes a difference in the here and now. I think about how grateful I am that that she opened up a piece of her life to me and let me share this space with her—and hope that if I were ever in this position, I might have someone to support me.


Michele Ko is the Government Relations Associate at Planned Parenthood of New York City. She is a reproductive justice advocate, abortion doula and recent graduate of Wesleyan University, where she studied cultural anthropology. Follow her on Twitter at @_komichele.