Abortion doulas help women with nowhere else to turn

Birth doulas help expectant mothers — but for women wanting to know more about options to terminate a pregnancy, these counselors-in-training can lend a helping hand.

Abortion services in N.L. tricky to navigate, volunteers say

Shannon Hardy, a doula who volunteers to help women through the logistics and emotions of an abortion, offered a training session in St. John's over the weekend. (CBC)

A growing ring of volunteers are bringing abortion counselling to Newfoundland and Labrador amid an uptick in laws clamping down on reproductive rights south of the border.

Nova Scotia native Shannon Hardy spied a gap in her province's health system seven years ago: while women could legally obtain an abortion, many of them lacked any means of figuring out exactly how to get to a clinic and have one, she said.

A doula by training, Hardy sees abortion as part of the reproductive "continuum" — an essential, yet widely under-provided service.

"There are so many barriers to abortion access," Hardy said, especially throughout vast and scarcely-populated rural Canada.

That's where an abortion doula steps in: helping connect someone with information, transportation to a clinic and emotional support for those who may not feel comfortable or safe disclosing their decision to loved ones.

Emma Duke, a St. John's-based doula, will help run the network in Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

The social worker first grew the doula network, now called Abortion Support Services Atlantic, by connecting women in Prince Edward Island with rides to reach the mainland, where they could access abortion clinics.

She's now teaching others how to lend a listening ear to a topic often veiled by stigma: the doulas don't simply disappear after an abortion, but can help women talk through their decision and choose how they'll tell — or not tell — their loved ones about the procedure.

"If you have somebody to talk to and normalize that experience, and just say how you're feeling without judgment, that's going to help you move on from that experience," she said.

"That's why we're here. Because when people don't have that opportunity, then it sort of stays with you. And you feel like — maybe I did do something wrong, because nobody wanted to talk about it."

With help from local doulas and a spate of weekend workshops this month, Hardy is now expanding the network to Newfoundland and Labrador.

Grassroots project

About a dozen women convened in St. John's on Sunday to discuss client management and refresh their specs on the health services offered across the province. 

Many of them will end up performing the services for free: the network runs on volunteers and small donations, a small grassroots project devoid of public funding.

The grassroots network relies on donations to help clients access transportation to clinics. (CBC)

Hardy says they do it because it's all part of being a birth worker.

"We can't imagine someone being in a birthing room who didn't want to be there, who was potentially coerced into being there — who didn't have the opportunity to have an abortion, for a pregnancy they didn't want to continue with — [and] is now giving birth to a baby that isn't necessarily wanted," Hardy said.

"And that's just antithetical to everything we think of as reproductive support people."

Rising anti-abortion sentiment

As the network grows in Atlantic Canada, women in the United States are losing access to abortion services at a rapid clip.

Earlier this week, Alabama passed a law making abortion illegal for any reason at all stages of pregnancy.

Both Hardy and Duke say they've noticed a surge in vocal anti-abortion sentiment north of the border, too — including during the recent provincial election, when a Tory candidate got in trouble for his staunch conservative views.

Bianca Cameron-Schwiesow, from left, Kari Crowe and Margeaux Hardline, dressed as handmaids, take part in a protest against HB314, the abortion ban bill, last month at the Alabama State House in Montgomery, Ala. (Mickey Welsh/Montgomery Advertiser/AP)

But Hardy thinks, in a sense, that's to the benefit of pro-choice advocates: it means they know who's on their side.

"They're coming out of the woodwork," she said, recalling Ontario MPP Steve Oosterhoff's recent pledge to make abortion "unthinkable."

"Now we know who to vote out of office."

But even as legislators eliminate abortion services in the U.S., Hardy says the same won't happen here: even Oosterhoff was met with vehement pro-choice protest, she pointed out.

"Canadians are not going to give up our rights. We just aren't."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador