n the wake of the 1973 landmark ruling Roe v. Wade in 1973 — which granted that a woman’s liberty right (ie, whether or not she is pregnant) is stronger than the state’s interest in the fetus’ life up until the “point of viability” — there has been a slow and steady unraveling of abortion rights in this country.
And most recently, there’s been a return to a rhetoric that vilifies everyone who nears a clinic, from the provider to the nurse to the patient. Anti-choice legislation such as “heartbeat bills” and 20-week abortion bans may be de rigueur, but attacks on those who administer terminations are as old as the practice itself.
Although the word has been reappropriated and reinterpreted in recent decades stripping it almost entirely of meaning, “witches” in the fourteenth century provided aid to ailing women, kicking off a period known as the Inquisition, a hunt for “heretics” that often murdered women on its altar to God.
Barbara Ehrehreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: a History of Women Healers details the Medieval European, Papal-orchestrated and socially-sanctioned hunting, torturing, and killing of women who possessed medical knowledge and treated other women — and mostly poor ones at that — a moment in history categorized as a genocide by some.
“By the fourteenth century, the medical profession’s campaign against urban, educated women healers was virtually complete throughout Europe. Male doctors had won a clear monopoly over the practice of medicine among the upper classes (except for obstetrics, which remained the province of female midwives even among the upper classes for another three centuries). They were ready to take on a key role in the elimination of the great mass of female healers — the ‘witches.’”
Conventional medicine, as was practiced then, was state-sanctioned and administered. Marking an early lean into the professionalization of the male doctor, hunters sponsored by the Church and King had permission to kill and torture women healers who threatened institutionalized medicine, dispelled bodily knowledge or were perceived as dissident voices. This was, at the time, a deadly dualism: women were killed because they offered medical advice unaligned with Church standards and also simply because they were women.
In other words, the practice of “unconventional” healing was a criminal act, though so too was being a woman: in attending to their peer’s bodies, witches put their own in harm’s way.
Midwives, or doulas — as they’re often called today — were persecuted during the witch craze for the crime of helping and healing women. Ehrehreich and English write:
“Witch-healers were often the only general medical practitioners for a people who had no doctors and no hospitals and who were bitterly afflicted with poverty and disease. In particular, the association of the witch and the midwife was strong: “‘No one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives,’ wrote witch hunters.”
Given this history, the presence of abortion doulas in clinics is not a new phenomenon, but the latest link in a lineage of women healers attending to those in need of help. And while the practice is still in its infancy, about 30 abortion doula organizations exist nationwide according to the New-York based Doula Project. The origins are as old as the record is of women who care for women, that is to say, old as the witch herself.
Much like the witches who came before them, trained abortion doulas hold a space for the patient and make themselves available to take on their emotional needs. Doula services mirror that of a nurse, aiming to “support [termination] as a positive choice for them…and helping them see the good things that they’re doing through making that choice,” said Jill Tanenhaus, who’s been with the Doula Project for 10 years.
The experience of seeing a doctor or undergoing a procedure can be intimidating, and though doctors care about the health of their patients, most are focused solely on the physical procedure, leaving a patient to self-sooth and manage their own emotions.
And in connection with Ehernreich and English’s assessment of the witch, doulas are certified to practice but aren’t using a medical degree to support their work. Practicing doulas come from a variety of backgrounds, but the volunteer work of patient support relies on using one’s senses to provide a service.
According to Ehernreich and English, witch-healers operated outside large cities, in homes and forested areas away from the physical reach of the Church, and appeared to be both magical and medical, as they often relieved their patients from ailments that male healers could not. (The professionalization of obstetrics didn’t evolve until later, and in fact, the Church believed that any ailment one contracted was punishment from God from which one should suffer).
The magic that the Church and witch hunters feared at the time was not just that women depended on one another, but that the witch healer trusted herself. “She relied on her senses rather than on faith or doctrine, she believed in trial and error, cause and effect,” Ehrenreich and English write, “Her attitude was not religiously passive, but actively inquiring. She trusted her ability to find ways to deal with disease, pregnancy, and childbirth — whether through medications or charms.”
In other words, the witch trusted herself and her emotions and she provided emotional support to others. She listened and she nurtured, and she developed the skills to understand what a patient needed based on their attitude and form.
The abortion doula offers this same work: they meet a patient’s emotional needs by relying on their senses, they offer guidance, advice or humor depending on what the situation calls for, they effort to support as opposed to imposing power over someone. “The main thing for me is that people often come feeling a lot of shame,” said Tanenhaus. She sees her work as an effort to reframe the decision for the client by helping them to see that they are making a decision that will allow for positive growth in other areas of their life.
A doula may provide emotional support, advice on pain management techniques, and information that demystifies what can be a confusing procedure, and normalize what has been touted as an unsafe and immoral medical procedure. Those seeking terminations often have to wade through protestors to enter a clinic, which can add to the anxiety and shame a patient may feel, Tanenhaus said.
The Doula Project explains that doulas believe their recognition of a patient in need of their own life and autonomy is an affirming procedure and among the most critical components of their work. The clinic becomes “a place to open up,” said Tanenhaus, to “just support people feeling what they feel.” It’s the act of women — and those with uteruses — supporting one another is a quiet and revolutionary act.
And while the work of abortion doulas is not under attack, their work is jeopardized by the increase in pro-birth and antiabortion laws, the reduction of protection for clinic and clinicians, the presence of TRAP legislation at the state level, and the appointment of Supreme Court justices like Mr. Kavanaugh who have vowed not to rule in the interests of health care, rather their own prescriptive religious views, an eerie mirror to fourteenth-century neighboring of Church and State interests.
State governments have severely cut back access to abortion services in the last 10 years across the United States, making termination procedures more difficult to acquire and more political in nature. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 12 states passed 26 different abortion bans in 2019 alone. Five states this year have passed six-week abortion bans, each with the intention of challenging Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court and to usurp control over the bodies of women and vulnerable populations.
When the Catholic Church hunted down, arrested, and tortured women they believed to be witches, they did so in accordance with their belief that female sexuality was inherently evil and that those who provided female-focused medical care were blasphemous. The historical nature of abortion doula work and the role volunteer doulas provide is woven into the stories of women who practiced despite the threat of violence from the Church and the government.
“If a woman dares to cure without having studied,” the Papacy wrote, “she is a witch and must die.”