From the Other Side of the Speculum: New Fronts in the Fight for Reproductive Control

photo by Valerie Everett via Flickr creative commons

I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, raised by a mother who spoke often of the son she was forced to give up for adoption. This usually occurred around his birthday every year, which was just ten days before mine, in October. The stories she told us were never about empowerment or ease, about a woman who had chosen future opportunities over life with her child. It was “the hardest irrevocable decision” she ever had to make—a sad, anguished experience of being “forced” to give up a baby she wanted, that she loved, because she couldn’t afford to care for him. At the time, my mother had “nobody on the other end,” no safe or healthy family environment to support her, and as she was just beginning her life as a sober woman after years of drug an alcohol addiction, she had no confidence that she could give her baby a healthy and happy life.

When she became pregnant again just under a year after placing her son with adoptive parents, she had an abortion.

“I felt it was against my spiritual beliefs, but I did it anyway because I knew I couldn’t go through nine months with a baby, and then sign the papers for adoption again,” she says now. “And I wasn’t in any better place to care for a baby than I was the first time.”

When Jennifer Baumgardner, Elizabeth Gumport, and Kathleen Ross first decided to host URGENT: Free Abortions Now, a conference held last year at the New School celebrating forty years of abortion rights and activism, they didn’t know that Rick Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, and other right-wing reactionaries would make birth control one of the most pressing issues of 2012. “At stake is women having sex, women having control of their bodies and lives,” says Baumgardner, a forty-one-year-old activist, writer, and mother. “When I was in college, the horrible treatment of Anita Hill by the Senate galvanized me. I think birth control is the Anita Hill of today.”

Abortion has remained a mainstay in feminist organizing—something Baumgardner well knows. In 2004, she initiated the I Had An Abortion Project, which resulted in a book (Abortion & Life), a film, and t-shirts printed with the statement: “I had an abortion.” The project was meant to provide a platform for people to connect personally to an issue that—even by feminists—is often discussed solely in terms of political posturing. The t-shirts were so controversial, so blatant, that they became a lightning rod for ire not only from Limbaugh and the Drudge Report but also some who identify as pro-choice—a reminder that you can call yourself pro-choice and still be very uncomfortable with abortion.

Control over our bodies and thus our lives has long been the backbone of feminist philosophy, from feminists like Cindy Cisler who urged for the repeal (not the reform) of abortion laws in the late 1960s to the pro-choice doulas (women who provide assistance during and after childbirth) of today. The slogan for the URGENT conference was “Free Abortion Now,” which, according to Baumgardner, has to do with economic and access issues but also with “demystifying this idea that abortion is this special procedure that only doctors can do.” Radical feminists have pioneered abortion collectives, menstrual extraction, and revitalized herbal abortions. Most recently, young feminists are becoming full-spectrum doulas, based on the theory that, as Baumgardner says, “if you’re placing a baby for adoption you need and deserve support, if you’re having an abortion you need and deserve support, and if you’re going to birth the baby and raise it you need and deserve support.”

The birth, adoption, and abortion doula services offered by the Doula Project of New York City (who also hosted a panel at the URGENT conference) are the first program whose mission is to support women no matter what they decide to do with their pregnancies. Since 2007 the Doula Project has been providing a “model of care [that] covers three main prongs of support: emotional, physical, and informational support.” Doula Project cofounder Lauren Mitchell states that it “is also important to remember that a doula is an explicitly non-medical role, and is meant to provide this support without judgment.” She has seen a “wave of young women, birth doulas, and midwives, training to provide full-spectrum support (abortion and traditional birth and post partum care) to women.” The opt-out model that the organization uses ensures that there is a volunteer doula present at all times in several sites (a Manhattan public hospital—which wishes to remain unnamed—and Planned Parenthood’s Brooklyn and Bronx sites), whether or not the patient requests one. Do women want these services? “In four years of active clinic work, we have had only a small handful of opt-outs (approximately five or so),” says Mitchell.

The Doula Project, and its approximately forty volunteers, are organized without an overt political agenda. But its inspiration came during the annual abortion speak-out at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference at Hampshire College. According to Mitchell,

It was in listening to these stories, generously and bravely told, that crystallized for me, and many others, the need for basic human compassion during such an intensely embodied experience. This is not to say that people who have abortions are not capable of handling physically and often—but not always—emotional discomfort without someone to “hold their hand,” but rather, that it is something that should be a given—something that is there, offered without shame and without assumption, as a gesture of empathy.

In this way “doula activism” differs from other feminist and women’s-issue activism. The doula’s role is to bear witness, and is often (by both political activists and clinics alike) viewed as the most expendable. “I think the problem comes in when those of us who support abortion on a social and political level become afraid of acknowledging that it is a difficult enough experience to warrant the need for ‘emotional support.’ And it’s definitely true that it’s not an emotional or sad experience for everyone,” Mitchell says. Still, “To need an abortion is not a joyful experience.”

Andie Gersh, an abortion doula at the Planned Parenthood Bronx location, explains why it’s so important to offer women the option of having someone in the room with them—as friends and partners are not allowed to be with the patient due to privacy issues:

Some patients I will meet will say virtually nothing and then I have some patients that won’t let me leave the room. One of the patients, they found out right before the procedure that she had an STD. She was dealing with so much guilt, and she was so upset about having to make this choice, and to find out that there was dishonesty in this partnership was horrible for her. We had this wonderful and terrible experience of just crying together. Otherwise she just would have been alone just seconds before this experience that she had been terrified of. Within that procedure, we had been laughing, crying, and sharing stories about terrible men we had dated, and it was hard for me because I had similar experiences. There are times when the connections are huge, and it just feels good. I glean incredible knowledge, and support, and joy from being an abortion doula.

The gap between women in the abortion rights movement, predominantly middle-class and white, and the lived experience of women who have abortions, disproportionately lower-income and women of color, is often noted. Activists such as Loretta Ross of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective have challenged the pro-choice/pro-life dichotomy, a frame that often leads women who get abortions not to get involved in abortion rights politics. Their decisions regarding pregnancy often result from various socioeconomic factors that no women “choose”; the doula movement aims to recognize this emotional, spiritual, and intellectual complexity. The reproductive justice framework, which problematizes the term “pro-choice,” “appeals to more and more women because…you can’t look at the decision to have an abortion in a vacuum—it’s acknowledging the oppressive system that decision is made within,” said Kathleen Ross.


While programs like the Doula Project work to improve the often hostile or overwhelming medical environment women are confronted with, radical feminists, such as writer Inga Muscio, suggest another direction entirely. Instead of making the process of engaging with health care in the clinic setting less scary, she has washed her hands of the system entirely, in order to make room for what she views as complete reproductive control over her own body, if not life.

“My experience of abortion was that it was very factory like, very cold,” says Muscio, the author of the Third Wave feminist classic, Cunt.

Consider that I went to abortion clinics before there were Operation Rescue protest people and there was huge pressure on abortion clinics. It was very cold, and clinical, and horrifying. And it was about getting me out of there. No time to recover. It’s all about putting this vacuum cleaner tube up you, suck out your insides, and you’re left full of grief. And then they’re like, ‘go home.’ The factory setting was very depressing. The violence of it was really horrifying as well, compared to when I used herbs and imaging/meditation to induce a miscarriage…that was a lot more gentle, I guess. It wasn’t as violent, and cold, and impersonal.

While taking misoprostol (an ulcer medication that can stop postpartum hemorrhages and induce abortion) is a widespread practice in many poor communities in various countries, where it can be purchased for pennies and is the best viable alternative to dangerous and illegal surgical abortions, this isn’t the revolutionary model for reproductive control that Muscio envisions. “People think that if you stick this thing into your mouth it will abort your fetus, but with herbal [miscarriage induction] it has to do with your mind and spirit—your ability to set aside a time in your life where you work on this,” she says. “There’s prayer involved, telling that baby’s spirit that you’re not ready for it. It’s an intimate and sacred experience.”

Muscio’s dream for women’s health care, genuinely in the hands of women, is a community apothecary setting that would allow women up to two weeks to experience inducing miscarriage through a variety of alternative approaches including herbs, meditation, and massage. “I’m with the Right on saying: fuck abortion clinics,” says Muscio, although for very different reasons than the Right. “I think it would be great if people could learn to take care of themselves in a lot of different realms. But we aren’t living a culture that makes that possible in a lot of ways, just as it would be great if alternative methods were accessible to most people. But since they’re not, I guess I support abortion clinics.”

While only one in eight abortions in the United States are induced by pills as opposed to surgically, even fewer are done holistically via herbs and meditation. But Muscio doesn’t necessarily advance her preferred method as one she’d like to see grow quickly: “I really schooled myself before I even attempted to do it. It’s very dangerous. You have to know what these plants are, know that they’re sacred, understand their healing properties and know what can mess you up. Unless somebody has actually studied this recipe I wouldn’t give them the recipe.” The books of Susun S. Weed were an important part of Muscio’s education. “If you’re going to start educating yourself, with just forming a women’s health care collective, the best thing is to have a midwife or an herbalist, and you can learn all you could possibly want to know.”


Women fought for the right to an abortion; it has now become synonymous with one specific place and one specific machine. However, this building and this machine were designed by men, in a political and social structure controlled by men. It doesn’t have women’s best interests at heart. It never has.

As midwives and herbalists have, historically, been the community members that women would go to for abortions, births, and information about women’s reproductive systems, it seems fitting to place them at the center of this procedure now. However, midwives, nurse practitioners, and others who have devoted their lives to understanding and educating around these issues are part of a cohort qualified as “advanced practitioners” and are restricted from being trained in performing legal abortions. While Muscio’s may seem to be a fringe voice, her desire to create communities of women who work to educate themselves and each other about the gamut of reproductive issues is gaining traction.

Baumgardner doesn’t feel that advancing the notion that advanced practitioners should be allowed to perform abortion, or advancing alternatives for inducing miscarriage, clashes with Roe v. Wade. “Telling the truth about the options that feminists have pioneered—these options that feminists have reclaimed and put it into their own hands…does not negate the ability for there to be a doctor present. The achievement of Roe is huge, and there have been subsequent Supreme Court decisions that have ushered other barriers to abortion.”

Feminists and doula activists are challenging the current social environment around abortion and birth control, forty years after the historic decision that was supposed to guarantee the right—if not access—to abortion for all women. Why are women facing ignorance, and invasion into their most personal decisions, and shameful silencing about a common procedure?

“Our mothers sisters, friends, selves—we have had abortions,” says Baumgardner, who had a procedure in 2010. “The cultural message is still really punishing and isolating. There’s something about being honest about that experience that is still very profound. When you speak up, you get to be a whole person whose life isn’t a shameful secret.” Muscio offers her own radical challenge: “Men have no right to make decisions about women’s health care. At all. Ever.”


Margaret Campbell is a freelance environmental justice activist and organizer who has worked extensively on the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation in northwestern Minnesota on media and environmental justice initiatives. She is currently working and living in Brooklyn. You can follow the blog she co-edits here.