I’m all about laying myself bare, warts and all, so I thought I’d give you an excerpt, completely unedited, fresh off the crazy train, of the introduction to my new book-in-progress tentatively titled The Companion: An Abortion Doula Handbook. This excerpt is not the entire introduction but gives you a sense at least of where I come from as I begin to put together this book and the accompanying online abortion doula training. I also love that you get to see all the mistakes, shitty sentence constructions, terrible flights of ideas, mixed metaphors, and other writerly missteps that every writer makes and a good editor puts to rest. Seriously. ALL first drafts are shit and you CAN write a book. Just read below for inspiration 😉
When people ask me how long I’ve been doing this work, I’m not always sure what to say. Which work? Advocacy for women? Feminism? Reproductive justice? Was there ever a clean-cut line after which I began this work in earnest? What I usually end up telling people is that I began doing “front line” abortion activism work in 2010, when I founded Richmond (VA) Clinic Defense, but that I’ve been doing direct action feminist work since forever. I didn’t begin to do abortion doula work until 2015, after I moved to Canada but even that isn’t quite true. As I look back, I can see the pieces of what would become my abortion doula work falling into place at various times in my history within the feminist world.
Let’s just begin this story by saying that I did not start out “pro choice”. In fact, there was a time in which I was decidedly anti-abortion. I never stood outside of a clinic or even wrote any letters to my people in congress, but I did have a very regrettable bumper sticker on my car in high school. I also once visited an anti abortion crisis pregnancy center, but we’ll get to that. Mainly, my anti abortion outlook was a result of my upbringing and my “activism” was restricted to arguing with friends.
I grew up in a non-religious and non-political family that, after I was long out of the house, became quite religious and rabidly political. It was a strange shift, for sure. But as a child, we went to church exactly three times and my parents were sort of vaguely Republican in that way it was still possible for people to be in the 80s. I sort of glommed onto my parents’ views the way children do. In fact, I remember a time in gym class during the 1988 presidential election in which our fourth-grade class divided up into factions shouting, “BUSH!” or “DUKAKIS!” over and over again until our gym teacher was able to distract us again with dodge ball. I sometimes wonder if anyone else from that class remembers that and finds it as hilarious as I do. But fervently shouting the name of a man I knew absolutely nothing about was the height of political action for me until…middle school. Of course, it being middle school, I now had my OWN opinions and they were definitely not the opinions of my parents and they tended to center around whether things were fair or not. And it wasn’t goddamn fair that Mike was being suspended because Mr. Felix paid another kid a bribe to say that Mike had put a smoke bomb in someone’s locker (yes, I know. But we actually believed these things and believed them deeply when we were thirteen because school officials were, of course, evil and capable of anything). Filled with righteousness (and obviously credulity), I staged a sit-in. I got several of my friends to participate and we sat outside the school until Mr. Canard, God bless his soul, came out and spoke to us like adults (which we so didn’t deserve. I’d also like to mention that after writing that last sentence, I messaged Mr. Canard’s son who was a good friend back in those days and told him to please apologize for us and that I was publicly stating what an idiot I was as a sort of mea culpa.)
Then there was the time in high school when I decided that I was sick and damn tired of seeing the same four girls elected to prom court every single year. So, I got my best friend at the time Peggy and we walked around from classroom to classroom during second period giving impassioned speeches for why WE should be prom royalty. I wasn’t sure this was actually going to work. We didn’t exactly fit the Prom Queen ideal. But our faith in our fellow students wasn’t misplaced and Peggy and I were duly elected to the prom court. And that was the first time I swung an election.
But when it came to abortion, there wasn’t really a whole lot I thought I could do. By the time I was busy staging sit ins and influencing elections, it was the mid nineties and the big debate then when it came to abortion was the so-called “partial birth abortion” ban. Like many people of the time, I bought the phrase “partial birth abortion” hook, line, and sinker. I had no idea that it wasn’t even an actual medical term but rather a politico-religious term generated by the anti-abortion lobby. The actual medical term was a dilation and extraction. I completely bought the myth that during this procedure, a fetus was actually born and then systematically dismembered. I was as horrified as the anti-abortionists wanted me to be.
I remember having a discussion with my good friend Mark as the national debate raged around us. We were sitting in my car in front of his house.
“Don’t you think that banning these abortions will just lead to more back alley abortions?”
I was aghast. Allowing baby killing simply so irresponsible women could live? “It doesn’t matter!’ I yelled passionately, “These women chose to have sex! You can’t make it right, even to prevent other deaths! Besides, I would die for my child!”
Good God. That Mark just chose to quietly disagree is a grace I didn’t deserve. I can only plead, Mark, the self-righteousness of youth. I’m glad we’re still friends despite my rather loud and ill-informed youthful opinions.
Somewhere between this period of high school and college, things began to shift for me. Part of it was undoubtedly that I was a voracious reader. Let me explain the connection. Reading has the tendency to humble us because we’re forced into situations in which we meet with people we might otherwise pass by. We read about their lives, their triumphs, their mistakes, and it becomes impossible to refrain from empathizing with them. Yes, even the villains! We might not wish they were our real-life best friends but what you learn from reading is that everyone has a story. And more than that. You learn that everyone feels pain, feels joy, and that most people on this earth are sincerely trying to do good. Suddenly, you realize that you don’t need to punish them anymore.
I do mean punish. At some point I don’t even remember, I realized that what I argued so passionately for in my car that night at Mark’s house was retribution. It was punishment for women who strayed outside of a subconscious idea I had about womanhood that, I didn’t realize then, was informed by centuries of shitty theology. “I would die for my child,” wasn’t simply self-righteousness. It was a declaration that I was not a bad woman, that I had maternal instincts, and that I believed the correct punishment for “irresponsibility” was death. Of course, I never would have phrased it that way and, in fact, if I had thought it through that far I would have reversed my position long before. But I was operating with the cultural assumptions I was born into, assumptions about women and motherhood that had never been challenged in my small world.
In college, I decided to become a Roman Catholic. Yeah, we’ll come back to that one too. Anyway, I was involved with a young adult group, one of those church groups with the ludicrously huge age range of 18-35 (read: any single legal adult that hasn’t been exiled to the actual singles group). I really enjoyed my friends in this group. They were irreverent and always up for fun. In fact, I managed to get them all naked and into my sauna once after a night of clubbing. Achievement unlocked.
But that isn’t to say that there weren’t conservative members of the group. One, a former nun who always had an air of sadness about her, asked if I’d like to join her at a dinner sponsored by an anti-abortion group. To my surprise my voice answered back, “Oh, thanks, Rachel, but I’m not sure I’m actually anti-abortion anymore.” I was as surprised as anyone else that night who heard me. I mean, I knew I had shifted quite a bit over time. I had gone from, “Abortion is murder,” to, “I probably wouldn’t have one but I can understand why others do” in the space of a couple of years. But even more surprising than saying it was how right it felt. Because for many years, even as I was parroting “pro-life” talking points, anti-abortion positions had begun to feel kind of gross.
While still in high school, I was reading an article in Newsweek (all high school sophomores subscribe to news magazines, yeah?) about an attempt to ban abortion in North Dakota. I remember sitting on my bed, holding the folded magazine in my hand held in front of my window so that I could better read the article. At the sight of the headline, my mind was thinking, “Yeah, right on,” but my stomach and heart both sank. Never one to shy away from asking myself hard questions, I sat with it a bit thinking, “What the fuck…?” But I didn’t yet have the language to express what was happening to me. And what was happening to me is a story, as they say, as old as time.
As women, we’re used to working with hand-me-down constructs of womanhood. We can’t help it because it is usually our first teachers, our parents, who instill them in us, even without realizing it. We learn early on that we like pink, that we don’t like to get dirty, that we’re nice. Later on, those turn into being consumed by fashion, obsessive body policing, and enforced prudishness. But every so often, something gets through and niggles at us. For instance, the time my cousin, a deeply sexist man who, at that time, was a deeply sexist kid, told me that I needed to let my boyfriend “take control” in the relationship because boys need to feel powerful. Being only 12 years old and not yet having delved into feminist theory, all I could say was, “That’s such bullshit.” Underneath my three-word response though was a whole complex set of feelings that I couldn’t explain. I felt stunned. I was confused. On top of it all, I felt a blinding rage. That rage is what unites girls and women all over the world. There are times when we have no way to express the contradictions in our heads, no words for making sense of the bullshit we’re experiencing, but we all feel the rage. This is the part of our life before feminism, as in 1992 BF. After all, if men can invent entire historical ages that women never had a part in then I can very goddamn well invent a historical period before which I was enlightened and invented the tools I needed to understand my world, using my words and my experiences.
So, dear reader, that was how I came out of the anti-abortion world. My feminism and my growing sense of unease forced me to consider that perhaps the world did not need to be arranged according to male norms. There was no renaissance for women in Italy. The enlightenment period remained totally unenlightened about and by women. And the theology that informed our views throughout history of what a woman should be? It also was devoid of a real knowledge of women, women’s bodies, and women’s lives.
So, there I was in 2010, completely moved over to the “other side”. I’d already left the Catholic church, realizing that I had two strikes against me: I had a calling and it wasn’t to be a nun, and, that calling was to work for women’s liberation in some way. That December, I found myself staring at a group of people standing in front of a local abortion clinic and thinking, “This is wrong.” I knew very little about clinic escorting, a practice in which trained volunteers escort patients past protesters outside of clinics, but I contacted the clinic escorts over in Louisville, Kentucky whose blog Every Saturday Morning was already a widely read outlet among feminists. They sent me some start-up information and offered their support as I began to put together my first clinic escort team. Within two years, we had hundreds of local supporters and approximately 25 regular escorts. It nearly broke my heart when I left in 2015 to move to Canada.
Once in Canada, I realized that my calling hadn’t ended with clinic escorting. Somewhere along the way in my reproductive justice work, I had begun to interact more intimately with people regarding abortion and contraceptive care. People who knew what sort of work I did began to reach out to me online to ask questions or find support. At first I thought of this as simply another part of being an escort. After all, lots of people reach out to us when they realize we’re safe to talk to. But the more it happened, the more I realized that escorting, while an amazing experience, was not where I was supposed to stay. My outgoing personality, my religious calling, and my desire to be in deep relationship with people all came together when, after a couple of years, I realized that I had unwittingly become an abortion doula. My work consisted of intake, arrangements, meeting, support during the actual procedure, care in the recovery room, and, sometimes, whispered conversations about God’s love for a lonely and abandoned woman with no one to comfort her but some weird American rando. At this point, it only made sense to “put a collar on it”.
My work today is still largely centered on interacting with individual people seeking care. I suspect that it always will be. After all, my God is all about communion and so am I. But I also spend a huge amount of time, effort, and swear words attempting to challenge bad theology about women. I believe that all of us of European descent or anyone living in “the west” is infected by this bad theology whether they are religious or not. It’s in our culture and the only cure is to examine our preconceived notions of womanhood and thus anti-abortion attitudes, most of which, I argue, are products of this faulty theology. I’ll examine some of that in this book but mostly what I hope to do in this particular work is to show you what it is like to walk in love with women who need a companion. Though this does mean speaking politically from time to time, I hope to focus mostly on this work as a work of pure love since that is what is has been for me from the very first.
Thanks for reading my first draft! I hope you’re inspired now to go write your own shitty first draft! All it takes is a lack of shame and a desire to get that book finished. Your editor will take care of the rest.