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By Vanessa Norton

Recently, I was having dinner with a friend I've known since we were eight. Her name is Jenn. She brought up an interesting question: does the coat hanger still hold power as a chilling symbol of pre-Roe v. Wade? Now that there are other methods of "back alley" abortions, what symbolic power do these hold? 

Jenn and I are 40. Our mothers' generation, and the feminists who influenced us as girls, lived their most fertile years pre-Roe. As teenagers in the early 1990s, Jenn and I felt very close to that history.     

During our senior year of high school, the anti-abortion terrorist organization, Operation Rescue, invaded our home city of Buffalo, NY with the intenion of closing down our clinics. Jenn and I drove her parents' car every morning at 4am to defend the clinics (a couple of which were conveniently located just blocks from our downtown high school!) The coat hanger was ubiquitous as an image on placards or struck high in the air. I remember feeling something deep and fearful whenever I saw one. 

The OR people used their typically grusome posters of fetal body parts. So, Jenn made a sign of a woman who bled to death in a motel room, an image she copied from a black and white photo in Our Bodies, Ourselves. 

Today, if a person wants to terminate a pregnancy and can not access abortion, she may try some of the same methods women utilized pre-Roe: herbs, vitamin C, parseley, and the like. But if her pregnancy is later than 6 weeks, those are not likely to work. She may be able to access Misoprostol and Mifepritone online (, or in some countries, at a pharmacy. These non-descript white little pills work the majority of the time if a pregnancy is 9 weeks or less. But that still leaves later-term pregnancies, which get more expensive and dangerous to abort.  

What symbolic power could packets of pills carry, especially compared with coat hangers?

Does the movement to defend and expand access to legal abortion need symbols?  


Supporting an Adoption Birth

By Vanessa Norton

In October, I had the opportunity to support a woman planning to adopted her baby out. This was the first and only time I'd doulaed an adoption birth. I knew there was a basic contradiction in what I felt should happen with Mama and Baby the first days after birth, and adoption. I would have to handle my feelings right. This was part of what appealed to me.  

The birth mother is an extraordinary person. As she told me the story of her pregnancy, including her own birth family preassuring her to move back "home" and raise her baby in their community, I thought she was going to tell me she'd changed her mind. Instead, she told me that she'd come over 1000 miles to San Francisco with dreams of a different life. She didn't do this so she could end up with the exact life she had worked so hard to leave. I admired her intelligence and will immensely.

We spoke so frankly about our intimate lives, I felt that we were meant to come together like this. I told her this at the meeting.

The adoption was open, meaning that Mama's information would be shared with Baby, Mama chose the couple herself, they had met many times, gone out to dinner, and Mama would see Baby at least a few times a year. These are the basics, I'm sure there is a lot more to it.

The adoptive Dads attended the second prenatal meeting. They wanted to be involved in the birth as much as possible. I had my hesitations about so many people attending the birth, because I didn't want Mama's experience and feelings to be overwhelmed by the setting. It would be: me, Mama's boyfriend, plus the two adoptive dads. I felt I stated this, but it was the Mama's birth, and so everyone would be there. 

The day of the birth, I arrived at Mama's apartment and rubbed her back and gave her counter sacral pressure through some of her labor. Later, the Dads drove Mama and her boyfriend to the hospital (as they'd really wanted to) and the next day, baby was born. I felt very aware of the way the Dads would tell Baby his birth story, later in life. I imagined them telling him, "then we drove your Mom to the hospital..."

During the pushing stage, the Dads supported Mama's legs and I stayed by her face, giving her sniffs of orange oil and spoonfuls of honey and the usual water. 

Mama had told me initially that they were not avoiding bonding. She planned to pump breastmilk for three months, if all went well. I so admired her strength in doing this. She held Baby and nursed him at the hospital. After she returned home without him, things were tough. The little I heard from her and her boyfriend was excrutiating. Yet, if it weren't excrutiating, there might be something worse happening. Extreme sadness was a healthy response (albeit there are many "healthy" responses) to such profound loss.

Part of me is not crazy about adoption, about taking a baby who is biologically connected to his mother and interrupting that early bonding, especially under the cluelessly bright lights of a hospital setting. But I know in some situations it is probably the right thing, and as always, it is Mama's choice. It can and did also show human beings at their most loving and supportive, too. Everyone was trying their best to make Mama and Baby feel supported and loved through this experience.

I know women who adopted out their babies in the 1960s and their stories are a stark contrast to this one.

But I was only a supportive witness. I really don't know how any of this feels to her.    




By Holly Carpenter

I never really fully understood “Put your money where your mouth is” until today. A little background -- two months ago, I graduated from a masters program and passed my board exam to become a certified nurse midwife. Soon after, I accepted a full time job at a hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. The job is full time, but doesn’t involve any gynecology - just prenatal, labor and birth care. So I applied to Planned Parenthood as well to work per diem as a gyn provider: birth control, STI treatment, abortion care, etc. All the services that round out a full spectrum midwife.

I had my interview this morning, felt pretty good about it, and set off to buy a celebratory mattress. Understandably, you might be confused by the term “celebratory mattress”. Let me explain. For the past decade or so, I have had series of comically horrible mattresses: one made of cardboard in my college dorm, another that I found while dumpster diving in Colorado, a series of mattresses that were passed down from the former renter of whatever room I happened to be living in, a real winner that I found in the basement of a hipster commune in Haight-Ashbury, and for a while, a sleeping pad while I lived in a tent. I have gotten fleas from a mattress in Ecuador, and bed bugs from the mattress of a former boyfriend. You get the picture.

This montage of truly disgusting sleeping arrangements was not by choice. Between graduating from college at the exact moment the economy went into a deep, dark recession, lots of low wage/volunteer jobs, and graduate school, I haven’t had an extra cent to buy a decent mattress. So this was a celebration of financial solvency, an affirmation that I could finally afford to sleep comfortably.

I set off on my afternoon of mattress hunting. With Milky Chance blasting the base in my car and a hot chai revving up my energy, I went into store after store, trying out all sorts of mattresses, chatting with sales people (usually dudes), and listening with increasing bewilderment as they described “surrounded inner coils” and “memory gel foam contour European splendor sleep”. What? Finally, I found The One. It was reasonably priced, extra firm, did NOT feel like it came from a dumpster, and included free delivery.

The salesman and I worked it out after a wee bit of bargaining back and forth, and a lot of flirting from him. He started with “you couldn’t be 29! You look like you’re 20!” and continued by asking where I went to grad school “San Francisco! All the people there are so… gay!” and gradually devolved to telling me that “women like it when you hit on them at the bar - how else do they feel pretty?” and “you didn’t TURN gay down there, did you?” I tried to keep my cool, explaining that people don’t “turn gay” and that women can feel confidently sexy without affirmation from hicks in bars.

However, the ignorance continued to spew. Desperate to leave, I handed over my credit card and told him I needed to get going. As I did so, I noticed a baby bottle full of coins on the counter. Ever the nosy midwife, I stepped over to read the label on the bottle, expecting a fund for a local kid with cancer, or a store employee announcing a pregnancy. Nope. It was a donation site for Stanton Healthcare, a pregnancy crisis center (PCC) in Boise that rents the building right next to the local Planned Parenthood, and operates in the usual manner of PCCs - providing medically inaccurate, biased, manipulative “services” to folks who have the misfortune to stumble through their doors.

My breath stopped. I couldn’t. His chatter faded into the background as I realized that this was a decisive moment. I had to put my money where my mouth was. I took a deep breath and declared “I can’t buy a mattress from you. Your blatant homophobia is epically offensive and ridiculous in this day and age. Additionally, I believe strongly in everyone’s right to determine their reproductive choices and have unbiased access to continue a pregnancy, put a child up for adoption, or get an abortion. Stanton Healthcare represents everything that is contrary to my convictions, and I can’t support a store that supports them.”

Or, that’s what I wish I’d said. It was more of a blushing bright red and squeakily apologizing several times for having “...wasted his time but I really couldn’t buy a mattress from him because the bottle was against my beliefs and being homophobic was really lame, and, and…” type of situation as I backed out of the store and fled to my car.

I was shaking by the time I put on my seatbelt. I felt so rude, and unsure of whether I had just made a huge deal out of nothing. As I sat there, my phone rang. It was Planned Parenthood. I had gotten the job. I let out a huge sigh of relief and let the irony of the situation sink in. It was slightly ridiculous, but for the first time, I felt a kind of power in everyday decision making. I realize how privileged I am to have that kind of choice and power, and I’m grateful. And I’m going to keep using it.

Later that day, I bought a mattress from a woman named Lena, who told me about her childhood with an abusive father and a mother who moved her children every 3-4 months to escape “every time he found them”. She told me she had found a good guy to marry, and they had had two kids, both pregnancies affected by horrible hyperemesis gravidarum (a condition in which women vomit so frequently that they need tons of medication, IV hydration, and are often hospitalized). She said that she had asked for a hysterectomy after the first pregnancy, but had been told by her doctor that she had to have another baby (and be married) before he would perform one. I signed the credit card receipt, gave her a warm smile and a firm handshake, and said with complete honesty “It was such a pleasure doing business with you”.

Holly Carpenter, RN, CNM, is a full-spectrum midwife recently graduated from the University of California, San Francisco. She is a founder and former co-director of the Bay Area Doula Project.



Salon Series: Cultivating Birth Community Spiritual & Emotional Wisdom

Join Gena McCarthy for this month's Salon Series. The evening will include a presentation, discussion, practices and tools to cultivate your own and your community's spiritual and emotional confidence, strength and skill set for supporting women in the rites of passage of birth, abortions and miscarriages including healing trauma.

Cultivating Birth Community Spiritual Emotional Wisdom


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Date: Tuesday, November 11
Time: 7:00 - 9:00PM
Location: 5648 Oak Grove Ave., Oakland, CA 94618.
Very close to Rockridge BART!

As always, light food and beverages will be served.

Cost: Free ($5-$15 suggested donation for BADP, no one will be turned away for lack of funds). 
Accessibility: The space is wheelchair accessible (but the restroom does not have grab bars). Babes in arms are welcome. Please email salon_fund [at] bayareadoulaproject [dot] org or send us a note on facebook if you have any questions about accessibility.

RSVP on Facebook

Speaker Bio: Gena McCarthy

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Gena McCarthy RN, MFT is a perinatal psychotherapist, a certified EMDR (PTSD treatment), provider and a community organizer trained in Shamanic, Buddhist and Cherokee Peacekeeper teachings and cross-cultural ways of healing.

She specializes in supporting Birth Professionals, women and couple’s spiritual and emotional growth, empowerment and enjoyment on the journey of birth and parenthood, including healing any birth trauma.

Gena has been privileged to study and practice with a diverse range of communities and teachers in the fields of perinatal psychology, healing and spirituality.

She is a certified therapist in the Feeding Your Demons Practice developed by Lama Tsultrim Allione. 

Over the last 30 years Gena has cultivated a non-judgmental nourishing and effective process to reclaim and heal birth stories for mothers, birth professionals and anyone who wants to heal their own birth story of coming into this world.  This process brings participants greater ease in their lives, relationships, work and creativity. 

Gena is an educator, a CE provider, a consultant and a community organizer for Perinatal Professionals throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. 

She co-founded the Contra Costa Perinatal Depression to Wellness Network and the Mt. Diablo Family Resource Network and was a co-developer of the Contra Costa Health Services Integrative Health Program.

Currently she offers Birth Professionals the following ongoing services:
  • Prevent/Heal Trauma – Reclaim Miracles Birth Workshops
  • Birth Professional Renewal and Healing Continuing Education Circle Series
  • Birth Professional Certification Program to offer: Healing Birth & Mother Renewal Workshops

My Response to the Slate Article, "My Year as an Abortion Doula"

By Vanessa Norton

The week of September 15, Slate, an online current affairs magazine, reprinted an article, “My Year as an Abortion Doula,” by Alex Ronan, an abortion doula volunteer with the Doula Project in NYC. Several folks forwarded it to me, but I only skimmed it because I was unexpectedly pregnant myself and in the midst of considering my own upcoming abortion (which was fabulous). Now that enough time has passed to really think about the article, I have to say that I found much of it sensationalized and misrepresented abortion doula work and abortion in general.

Here's why this article troubled me, in a nutshell:

The article begins with a second-trimester abortion concluding in an emergency hysterectomy. This is dramatic on a TV-level because it is an outlier. As the lady who did my ultrasound at SFGH's Women's Options Center commented, “you can work in a clinic 30 years and never see anything close to that.”

I understand a writer's desire to tell her most intense stories, but as a writer and abortion doula myself, I look at the mythology surrounding abortion and ask myself if opening up with a bloody emergency hysterectomy will do anyone any good. The alleged danger of abortion is inaccurate, yet abundant, in both cultural mythology and legislation. For example, in Texas, the “reason” given for the TRAP laws (which, among other things, require abortion providers have admitting priviledges to local hospitals, and have shut down dozens of clinics across the US) is that it is “safer” for those getting abortions. 

Secondly, at several points in the article, Ronan's language paints clinic staff negatively, the patients passively, and almost romanticizes fetal remains. The attending doctor "barks commands," a nurse "shoves a bucket," a patient "stares blankly," or even worse, when reconsidering her abortion, doesn't know what she wants. Meanwhile, the fetus "sleeps like me," looks like a "doll arm."   

It isn't that all these things can't be true, but they are well-worn cliches--the stuff that people who haven't worked in abortion or as an abortion doula bring to the discourse. 

The real question is: after a year of abortion doulaing, what can you tell me that the media won't?  


What is never touched upon in the article is what I see as the most important piece of this abortion doula work--why do it?

It can be emotionally and physically taxing, it doesn't pay, it's sometimes hard, it's sometimes boring.

So why?

I only know why I do it, but after reading "My Year as an Abortion Doula" several times, I still don't have a sense of why Alex Ronan does it.

I know that doing this work teaches me, every time, that I have no clue what I would do if I found myself in someone else's life. 

I do not have the words to express why this is such a big deal, but it goes something like this: so much of the argumentation around abortion is steeped in the notion that someone other than the person having the abortion knows what it best for that person and that pregnancy. After having two abortions myself, witnessing several abortions, and touching just as many festus--babies--products of conceptions, I have never felt closer to the fact that no matter what choice is made, it is forever for that pregnant person. 

Isn't this enough? Doesn't such responsibility warrant more respect?

My friend/doula who witnessed my abortion said to me, "you can love your baby and also kill it." It was closest to what I felt when I decided to have an abortion. What a relief to hear someone articulate this. (I wish she'd written the article!)

There is a moment in Ronan's article where she recalls a woman who reconsiders getting a second-trimester abortion after her laminaria is inserted. The doctor explains that the baby could be born totally normal, or with developmental delays. The patient nods her head and decides to continue with the abortion, saying, “I wouldn’t want it to be born in pain or anything." Ronan's response is: "I'm struck by how her words don’t make sense, and also do." I feel like Ronan is getting it here. But then she follows with: "...I don’t know what she wants and I don’t know that she does, either." 

Actually, maybe this woman does know what she wants. But when no one else is talking about this--in a real way--publicly--it's not easy to come up with the perfect articulation of what that is. 

If you've read Ronan's article, please comment. We would love to hear your thoughts.