Exploring the Concept of Full-Spectrum Doula Support Around North Dakota’s Only Abortion Clinic

By Vanessa Norton, BADP Volunteer

Part 1:

In March of 2013, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple signed three of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion bills into law, including the fetal heart law, which ostensibly would outlaw abortion in the state. At the time, I was safely tucked away in my Bay Area bubble, working to complete my birth requirements for doula certification, but noting the passage of anti-abortion bills in several states. The North Dakota legislation stuck with me, perhaps because my great-grandmother was born in Fargo, and I’d spent time writing in the Dakotas and knew something of the isolation of the landscape and the cold winter, which makes everything more intense. I wanted to be in Fargo, to see what it was like for the Red River Women’s Clinic, the only abortion clinic in the state, and for the pro-choice community in general. I friended the Red Women’s River Clinic on Facebook, and started paying attention.

In July, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Fargo with my friend and fellow full-spectrum doula, Lucy Yanow. Lucy works as an abortion counselor at SFGH’s Women’s Options Center. As full-spectrum doulas, we share how we see reproductive rights—as a spectrum of choices to be supported. Each of these choices is right, and each has the potential for empowering the woman making it.

We arrived in Fargo expecting a kind of anti-abortion frenzy around the clinic and the city, but found nothing of the kind. I realized in retrospect that this assumption revealed my own cultural isolation. The Red River Women’s Clinic (RRWC) is located in a historic downtown building, next to a bar with outdoor seating. Although there are two prominent Crisis Pregnancy Center billboards within a block of the clinic, they didn’t seem to effect the calm, confident atmosphere around the clinic.

Inside, this confidence extends to a highly-developed clinic culture. The place is clean, professional, and uplifting. There is a shelf holding plants in handmade ceramic pots with handwritten notes, well-wishes for clinic patients. Plants for Patients, the non-profit that creates these gifts, procures the pots from local ceramic artists and holds periodic note-writing and potting get-togethers in Fargo cafes. Not at all what I’d expected. Plants for Patients doesn’t affiliate with either “side” of the abortion debate, but rather exists to support the women. It also acts to connect the Fargo community and the RRWC and de-stigmatize it.

When I patronized the local bars and restaurants, telling people why we had come to town, I heard some version of “good for you.” I never heard anything derogatory. RRWC Director, Tammi Kronemaker, pointed out numerous instances of support, or at least fairness, shown by local authorities. For example, Fargo added a subsection to its building codes to allow glass blocks instead of windows, so RRWC could maintain confidentiality for its patients; furthermore, the former chief of police approached the clinic to see how they could work together. Tammi showed me a hand-written letter from the family who’d owned the clinic building for decades, stating its support for women’s rights and for the clinic.

So then why the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country? Tammi explained that these laws are the result of a strategy made outside of North Dakota by the pro-life movement (notably, Americans United for Life). “Outside of the few right wing extremists, most North Dakotans have libertarean values and are quietly pro-choice.” In fact, it’s a misconception that there is one clinic in the state because the others were run out. Actually, one clinic serves North Dakota’s population of 700,000 quite well. RRWC perfroms about 1200 abortions per year; if there were two clinics, the number would simply be halved. 

Clearly, the story was not about the anti-abortion frenzy surrounding the RRWC. We moved on to exploring Fargo’s doula-midwife scene. We wanted to know where, within (or without) the spectrum of reproductive choice, did Fargo’s birth workers situate themselves? Is there a notion in Fargo of full-spectrum doulas? What do they think, and what are they doing, if anything, in response to the new anti-abortion laws?  

 (More to come next week!)

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