Ask An Abortion Doula 11 – “How do you support people from varied cultural/religious backgrounds?”

By Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson

Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson is an abortion doula and Ph.D. student in religious studies at the University of Alberta. She is the author of the Humanist Ceremonies Handbook (Humanist Press, 2018) and the upcoming The Companion: An Abortion Doula Handbook. You can visit her at her website www.electriceelpond.com.  Here she answers a question about the different types of services for different clientele.

February, 2019

How do you support people from varied cultural/religious backgrounds? Do you get a wide cross-section or do you find the population that accesses your services is largely homogenous?”

Salima via Facebook

Hi, Salima!

That’s a great question. I believe that supporting people of different backgrounds takes place long before you meet them. As a doula (or anyone really who is interested in supporting all people), we can’t wait for various groups to start showing up before we decide to get educated. A good example might be the time a colleague and I who were teaching together at an all-girls school brought up the subject of trans girls. We had been to a workshop together to learn about how to support trans students and we wanted to pass that education onto our colleagues, however, we were voted down because we had no trans girls at our school so it “wasn’t an issue yet.” This, as you can imagine, is quite the wrong approach. This kind of attitude made trans issues seem irrelevant to our everyday operation as a school, made it into a “special issue”. The proper response would have been to educate ourselves and rethink our physical environment so that we signalled to families with trans girls that they were not only welcome but expected.

I’ve tried taking the same approach in my doula practice. When I hold training sessions for aspiring doulas, I think it is important to educate them right away about the diversity of issues facing people from various backgrounds when it comes to abortion care and access. This can be tricky. If I have the money, I prefer to hire speakers from the communities about which I and others would like education. It’s not right for me to try to speak with any borrowed authority about, for instance, people of colour or trans folks. I also don’t assume they want to come educate us for free as that plays into the idea that marginalized people owe us an education regardless of the emotional and mental toll that can take. Therefore, I ask people in those communities if they would please join us and accept a stipend and I extend an invitation to their organization if they are interested in attending the training for free. I don’t do this because I want a cookie, but because we need to respect the “nothing about us without us” ethos. There have been times when I haven’t been able to engage a community member and have been faced with the choice of either dropping those modules or finding a way to speak about them that is compatible with the process of decolonization. The solution I’ve found is a delicate one but it’s been working so far. I have created modules in which I teach from the acknowledged place of a white cis woman and in which I talk about what white cis people need to understand about working with other communities. The emphasis in these modules is about examining our own privilege, dismantling stereotypes, and learning sometimes new language as well as respectful listening. At all times I make it clear that I cannot speak with authority about any experience other than my own and I work to amplify scholars, authorities, and other voices of people from those communities. I also work to ensure that our reading list contains the work and voices of those people with authority.

I also include a module on working with people of different religions. There is a stereotype that only non-religious people have abortions which means that my clients are often shocked when they find themselves sitting next to a woman in a hijab in the waiting room. The truth is that people of all religions have abortions and that not all religions approach the topic in the same way as the fundamentalist Christianity we’re all acculturated to in North America (though plenty of fundamentalist Christians also have abortions). I try to prepare my workshop participants by pointing out faith-based pro-abortion organizations as well as atheist anti-abortion organizations (yes, they absolutely exist). We also spend some time exploring our own faith or philosophy (if we have one) and how it coexists with, or even informs, our work. I provide a reading list of books that focus on religion and abortion, being sure to go beyond the ‘Big 3’ paradigm.

All of this is part of the reproductive justice model that I work from. Reproductive justice is a term that was coined by women of colour who needed a new way to explain the place of abortion and other reproductive options in their lives. Rather than looking at it from a reproductive rights framework, which is concerned mainly with laws, these women needed a new framework that included more than rights. For many people, simply having the right to abortion is not the point. They need to be in a position to freely choose it and access it. For many people, systemic poverty, racism, religion, geography, class, education, etc, all stand in the way of that. RJ’s main point is understanding that reproductive freedom is only a reality when we can ensure that it is a reality for the most oppressed among us. 

Salima, you also asked about how I personally support people from different backgrounds. I would say that about 60 percent of my clients are people of colour, usually south Asian or Indigenous. That means I have a lot of opportunities to try to practice what I preach. The most important things I can do are these two: listen and ask questions. I need to listen when marginalized people speak without trying to justify myself or white cis people, and I need to ask questions not to make that person do the emotional labour of educating me, but only to clarify points they’ve made so that I can gain a further understanding and show my interest in hearing what they have to say. For instance, some clients will tell me their stories which will include cultural points about which I am ignorant and I may need to ask for clarification so that I can fully appreciate what they’re telling me. I am still relatively new to Canada and I can sometimes miss important points. For instance, I only recently learned from an Indigenous client that it was important for me to present myself to the proper authorities whenever I go to pick up a client who lives on a reserve. I don’t have to tell them that the client is getting an abortion (nor would I!) but I do need to justify my presence as a white woman on their land. For anyone balking at this, please consider that white people have been traipsing about wherever they please and without respect for centuries and that simply presenting oneself is a good way to acknowledge that we’re on someone else’s territory.

There’s also the practical side of support. Educating myself about resources for Indigenous people, for instance, means that I can easily refer a client when they ask for that kind of assistance. Conversely, it’s important for white people like me to understand that not all Indigenous people are interested in Indigenous-focused care or are even connected to the culture of their ethnic background for a variety of reasons. That’s where listening really comes in handy. It helps you to serve that person without preconceived ideas. Many well-meaning but misguided white people have come to my training eager to learn how to perform Indigenous healing ceremonies so that they can help Indigenous clients. This is absolutely the wrong approach. It assumes an authority we, as white people don’t have (we should NEVER perform ceremonies that aren’t ours) and we should never assume that an entire group of people all want this kind of care.

Finally, I find it absolutely VITAL to point out to white cis doulas the power balance of the situation. Though I hope that all doulas would strive to treat everyone equally, the fact remains that as the doula, you are always in a position of power, even if that power is simply that you hold information your client needs. Being aware of that at all times is important, especially in a situation in which the doula is a white cis person and the client either a person of colour and/or trans, non-binary, or genderqueer. 

I feel like I could go on forever (I haven’t even talked about the intersection of language, medical settings and trans folks!) but I hope that this helps to answer some of your questions, Salima. And, as always, I am open to feedback from people of colour and other marginalized groups.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson.

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