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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2017

Meet Canada’s abortion doulas

The assistants help break down the stigma for Canadians terminating their pregnancies

Sara Tatelman

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In March 2012, Shannon Hardy came across dozens of headlines about Prince Edward Island’s abortion policy. The Island hadn’t offered in-province abortion services for 30 years, and those seeking terminations at private clinics had to travel to Nova Scotia or New Brunswick on their own dime. “I just thought, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe that happens,’” says Hardy, a 44-year-old social worker in Halifax.

Overwhelmed by the restrictions, Hardy decided to join forces with Island-based activists, set up a Facebook page, and take action. Within the month, the Maritime Abortion Support Services (MASS) was born, offering emotional and practical support to Maritimers seeking abortions. Among the volunteers are “doulas,” who help patients navigate the health care system, drive them to the hospital, make them cups of tea, and provide a non-judgmental ear.

While most associate doulas with birth, abortion doulas remind us of the emotional labour necessary to support those terminating pregnancies. By listening to their clients and simply advertising their services, these doulas help destigmatize abortion.

Across Canada, and especially on the east coast, conversations about abortion in the public and political sphere have long been fraught. Though a 1988 Supreme Court ruling found the ban of abortions in the country unlawful, the law deeming the practice illegal remains in the Criminal Code, and few politicians are interested in rewriting it. And on the east coast, where access to abortion has been difficult even in the last five years, many are faced with a great deal of shame when seeking medical assistance to terminate pregnancies.

As a result, abortion doulas provide a way for women to remain empowered during the process. The supports are largely practical: Doulas can help their patients find a clinic that allows their support person to be present during the procedure. They also prepare clients for the experience, including a conversation on how to deal with protesters, should they be there. But most of all, it’s a doula’s duty to offer comfort and companionship. “You follow their emotions,” Hardy says. “I’m simply here to be with you.”

There is no accreditation for abortion doulas in Canada, though informal weekend workshops are available in some cities—opening up the practice to those who want to make a difference to those struggling in their communities. In Halifax, Hardy hosts her own workshop, focused on communication. It’s important, for example, to use gender-neutral terminology, and avoid terms of endearment like “sweetie” or “honey,” which can come across as condescending.

Meanwhile in Calgary, Jessica Shaw, a volunteer full-spectrum doula, begins her workshops with a brief history of abortion in Canada, including legality, accessibility, and acceptability. Following that, she delves into how abortion medications work and what kind of care is needed throughout the process.

Those who sign up for the training include both paid and volunteer abortion doulas. And the workshops are popular—this summer in Halifax, Hardy’s filled up in a matter of days, and she’s been invited to run sessions in Newfoundland, Ontario, and Manitoba. While Shaw and Hardy are both volunteers, Brittany-Lyne Carriere in Toronto offers full-spectrum doula work—birth, miscarriage, abortion and fertility—full-time. She charges around $30 an hour, but also offers reduced rates for those with financial difficulties, and accepts barters too. Her work is often grassroots, focused less on profit and more on empowerment. “I recently traded a Thai massage for abortion doula care,” she says. “That kind of energy exchange is really important to this kind of work.”

Doulas’ often voluntary labour can play a significant part in changing attitudes about and improving access to abortion. It can often be difficult for patients to ask questions about accessing the procedure because of the sense of shame that is attached to abortion. “There are hotlines you can call for this information, but even that feels stigmatized,” Carriere says. Abortion doulas’ presence can help people get accurate information and reassure them that their bodies are their own to make choices about.

“The way we can destigmatize abortion is to talk about it—sharing stories so it becomes less scary and more normal,” Shaw says, noting that one in three Canadian women will have an abortion at some point in her life.

In January, abortions became available in P.E.I. But that doesn’t mean Hardy’s work in the Maritimes is done. For one, the only P.E.I. hospital offering the service is limited to first-trimester abortions, so Islanders in their fourth month of pregnancy and beyond would still have to leave the province. And even though it’s possible to get an abortion in Nova Scotia, it’s difficult. Patients have to wait until they’re at least eight weeks pregnant, may have to travel hundreds of kilometres to the province’s only pregnancy termination unit in Halifax, and until recently, required a doctor’s referral.

Still, it’s encouraging to see slow but steady policy changes. And like P.E.I. offering abortion services after 30 years and many provinces paying for the abortion pill Mifegymiso, doulas’ work plays a significant role in reducing barriers to abortion care. After all, as Shaw says, “women have been helping other women as long as abortion has been happening, which is as long as people have existed.”

Sara Tatelman is a freelance writer and law student based in Toronto.

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