My Response to the Slate Article, “My Year as an Abortion Doula”

By Vanessa Norton

The week of September 15, Slate, an online current affairs magazine, reprinted an article, “My Year as an Abortion Doula,” by Alex Ronan, an abortion doula volunteer with the Doula Project in NYC. Several folks forwarded it to me, but I only skimmed it because I was unexpectedly pregnant myself and in the midst of considering my own upcoming abortion (which was fabulous). Now that enough time has passed to really think about the article, I have to say that I found much of it sensationalized and misrepresented abortion doula work and abortion in general.

Here’s why this article troubled me, in a nutshell:

The article begins with a second-trimester abortion concluding in an emergency hysterectomy. This is dramatic on a TV-level because it is an outlier. As the lady who did my ultrasound at SFGH’s Women’s Options Center commented, “you can work in a clinic 30 years and never see anything close to that.”

I understand a writer’s desire to tell her most intense stories, but as a writer and abortion doula myself, I look at the mythology surrounding abortion and ask myself if opening up with a bloody emergency hysterectomy will do anyone any good. The alleged danger of abortion is inaccurate, yet abundant, in both cultural mythology and legislation. For example, in Texas, the “reason” given for the TRAP laws (which, among other things, require abortion providers have admitting priviledges to local hospitals, and have shut down dozens of clinics across the US) is that it is “safer” for those getting abortions. 

Secondly, at several points in the article, Ronan’s language paints clinic staff negatively, the patients passively, and almost romanticizes fetal remains. The attending doctor “barks commands,” a nurse “shoves a bucket,” a patient “stares blankly,” or even worse, when reconsidering her abortion, doesn’t know what she wants. Meanwhile, the fetus “sleeps like me,” looks like a “doll arm.”   

It isn’t that all these things can’t be true, but they are well-worn cliches–the stuff that people who haven’t worked in abortion or as an abortion doula bring to the discourse. 

The real question is: after a year of abortion doulaing, what can you tell me that the media won’t?  


What is never touched upon in the article is what I see as the most important piece of this abortion doula work–why do it?

It can be emotionally and physically taxing, it doesn’t pay, it’s sometimes hard, it’s sometimes boring.

So why?

I only know why I do it, but after reading “My Year as an Abortion Doula” several times, I still don’t have a sense of why Alex Ronan does it.

I know that doing this work teaches me, every time, that I have no clue what I would do if I found myself in someone else’s life. 

I do not have the words to express why this is such a big deal, but it goes something like this: so much of the argumentation around abortion is steeped in the notion that someone other than the person having the abortion knows what it best for that person and that pregnancy. After having two abortions myself, witnessing several abortions, and touching just as many festus–babies–products of conceptions, I have never felt closer to the fact that no matter what choice is made, it is forever for that pregnant person. 

Isn’t this enough? Doesn’t such responsibility warrant more respect?

My friend/doula who witnessed my abortion said to me, “you can love your baby and also kill it.” It was closest to what I felt when I decided to have an abortion. What a relief to hear someone articulate this. (I wish she’d written the article!)

There is a moment in Ronan’s article where she recalls a woman who reconsiders getting a second-trimester abortion after her laminaria is inserted. The doctor explains that the baby could be born totally normal, or with developmental delays. The patient nods her head and decides to continue with the abortion, saying, “I wouldn’t want it to be born in pain or anything.” Ronan’s response is: “I’m struck by how her words don’t make sense, and also do.” I feel like Ronan is getting it here. But then she follows with: “…I don’t know what she wants and I don’t know that she does, either.” 

Actually, maybe this woman does know what she wants. But when no one else is talking about this–in a real way–publicly–it’s not easy to come up with the perfect articulation of what that is. 

If you’ve read Ronan’s article, please comment. We would love to hear your thoughts. 

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