Nova Scotia

'Abortion doulas' offer support to women with nowhere else to turn

A Halifax social worker will host her second training workshop for "abortion doulas" — volunteers who provide "emotional and practical" support to people who choose to terminate their pregnancies.

Halifax social worker trains volunteers to support people ending their pregnancies

Shannon Hardy is the co-ordinator of Maritime Abortion Support Services. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Five years ago, Halifax social worker Shannon Hardy began driving women hundreds of kilometres so they could get abortions. They couldn't turn to their families or friends, so they turned to her for kindness and support.

Next month, Hardy will host her second training workshop for "abortion doulas" — volunteers who provide "emotional and practical" support to people who choose to terminate their pregnancies.

Doulas are more commonly associated with the non-medical areas of pregnancy and childbirth. They can assist in breathing, mindfulness, and anxiety and pain relief.

But Hardy, the founder of Maritime Abortion Support Services, said full-spectrum doulas offer support to anyone going through a time of potential stress or trauma, which is often the case for people having abortions. 

Shannon Hardy launched Maritime Abortion Support Services in 2012. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"[An abortion doula] is someone who offers emotional and practical support," said Hardy. "Someone who can talk you through the procedure, talk you through the system, someone who would be with you afterwards if that's what you want."

Hardy works for Adsum House, a Halifax-based shelter that offers support services for women and children. She launched Martime Abortion Support Services through Facebook in March of 2012, after recognizing the obstacles in accessing abortion procedures and information in rural areas.

She began volunteering by picking up pregnant people from P.E.I., where abortion procedures were unavailable at the time, and driving them to doctors in Halifax. In the five years since, she said she's given support to over 240 clients from around the Maritimes.

Her goal, she said, is to offer "strictly confidential" kindness to anyone who may feel they can't turn to their friends, family or doctors for support.

Currently, there isn't an official certification process for abortion doulas in Canada, but Hardy said she believes it's only a matter of time before that happens.

Ella Vermeir is a birth doula newly trained as an abortion doula. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Hardy said abortions are so negatively stigmatized that there are few judgment-free areas, especially in smaller communities, for people who choose to have one because of accidental pregnancy or rape.

"I had a client call me from a rural area in Nova Scotia, they were finding it very difficult to find a provider," she said. "I called a well-women's clinic and I was told, 'We don't do anything in terms of termination,' and they hung up on me." 

Hardy said she thinks instances like these are commonplace, and that abortion doulas can "fill the void." 

Ella Vermeir has been a birth doula for a year, and is a recent Dalhousie graduate with a masters in health promotion. She was one of seven people who went through Hardy's first training workshop.

She said new methods like the abortion-inducing medication Mifegymiso, which could one day be dispensed by pharmacists rather than doctors, may increase the demand for abortion doulas. 

'The core of what we're doing is human beings helping human beings,' Vermeir said. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

"[Abortions are] kind of scary, it is medical in that way. If you're just home by yourself, I can totally imagine why someone would just want someone who's informed about what's going on." 

Vermeir said her new training is going to help her provide better care to all of her birthing clients as well, despite the "polarizing" nature of abortions. 

"People may hear the term and automatically be turned off by it, but the core of what we're doing is human beings helping other human beings," says Vermeir.

"I think using the word abortion is very important," said Hardy. "Every time you say it, you take the stigma out of it just a little bit."

Hardy's next training session in May is sold out, but she said she'll be holding more. The 14-hour workshop costs $100. 

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