Every Tuesday morning, it is my job to love the women I do not know. I volunteer at an abortion fund, where people who cannot afford the cost of their procedure come for financial assistance and support. They call the hotline and I answer the phone. For some, it is the worst moment of their life; for most, it is the simplest task to cross off a long list of trauma and troubles.
We talk about rape, how the lights are about to be shut off if this bill doesn’t get paid, motherhood, anxiety, male partners who refuse to speak to them, health insurance, food stamps, and weekend plans. Sometimes women call from the bus stop outside prison; from their neighbor’s kitchen; from their job at the grocery store; from the highschool bathroom; from the couch with a baby giggling on their lap. Sometimes we connect with a translator because of language barriers. We support teenagers while they navigate the court system to get around parental consent laws. We learn about sex trafficking that happens in the city we call home; about substance use and overdose; about homelessness and public housing; about guns and where they are hidden in the bedroom. I say, “I hear you.”
The abortion fund is a site of refuge and non-judgment, but it is also a site of power: we determine how to best support as many callers as possible with the money we have, which means it is impossible to fully fund everyone. I have learned how to say “no” while also saying “I believe in you.” I have learned that people and women seeking abortion care are some of the most resourceful, creative, and resilient among us.
I also volunteer as an abortion hand-holder once a month at a local clinic. Anyone receiving an abortion that day is asked if they would like someone to hold their hand during the procedure. Because patients are no longer allowed to bring their own support person into the room for security reasons, most say yes. I enter the room where they are already waiting in their paper gown, trying to figure out where to place their gaze, which tools to avoid looking at. I usually make a joke about how they can squeeze my hand as hard as they want to, and I promise not to break. We talk about what they will eat after the procedure, if they came to their appointment alone, how the protestors outside made them feel. The experience of pain is different for everyone, but the one guarantee I can make is that they will get through this and be safely taken care of. I help people to breathe through the discomfort. I ask if they would like me to explain what is happening. I rub their shoulders and remind them of their own strength. I tell them to take care and be well when I leave them in the recovery room with a tiny cup of juice and salty crackers.
I have seen people vomit from pure relief that it is over. Women cry for pregnancies that were meaningful to them. Some tell me that they don’t believe in this, but that they know it is the best choice for them and their family right now. Women pray. They listen to Nicki Minaj on their headphones, an act of meditation and distraction. There is blood that drips on the floor while I gingerly hold up their underwear for them to step into. Sometimes patients are angry and rude to everyone, which is understandable given that they have crossed through fire to get here. People ask what I think, why I do this, who I am. I simply say that I believe nobody should have to be alone during their abortion if they don’t want to be. But what I am really talking about is love.
Offering emotional support to a stranger for 10 to 30 minutes is a profound kind of intimacy. It means bearing a certain type of witness, and many patients remark on how it felt important to have another woman there with them. In that moment, my “womanness” matters. Regardless of our positions in the universe, we meet in the middle at an experience that is steeped in legacies and histories of women.
As a social worker, I am forever frustrated by how my career field is feminized and therefore deemed non-threatening. When I tell people that I am a social worker, I am often met with assumptions that I work with children; my role is reduced to something tolerable, neutral, and soft-edged in the larger moral script. It is exhausting to enter professional spaces and be reminded yet again that this world was not meant for me to thrive in as a many-layered woman. Social work is simultaneously upheld and disqualified because in this white capitalist heteropatriarchy, emotional labor is not valued. Providing emotional support is accepted as a “natural” impulse of women rather than a vortex of intentionality and energy. But the same framework that understands social work as feminine also illuminates a source of magic and inspiration. Seeing women/femmes/queer/trans/gender variant people hold it down in the face of injustice makes me proud to subvert our understanding of being yet another woman in this field. Holding hands and loving women through the stigma, shame, and violence is a political act. Radical empathy is my weapon, and it is fierce and ready to bite.
To all the women I have loved whom I may not know: thank you.
The thing about holding someone’s hand is that they are bound to hold yours back.
Note on Gender: Not everyone accessing abortion services identifies as a woman or is a woman. But when we are in the clinic, we are all reduced to a gender identity that makes the state more comfortable regulating and controlling our bodies. It is easy to assume all patients are “women,” because abortion is situated within a political system that values women for their reproductive labor. While it is tempting to think about abortion as a fundamentally woman-only experience, it is also useful to think about the ways in which having an abortion can challenge, disrupt, and queer our understanding of what it means to be a woman in the eyes of the oppressive state. I use “woman” here because it is how everyone I’ve worked with has chosen to disclose their gender to me—perhaps some of them are using that strategically or out of convenience in a moment. One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. I recognize, however, that this is not fully representative of everyone who gets abortions.
More information on abortion funds: Abortion funds work to remove logistical and financial barriers to abortion access in a variety of ways. Some funds pay for the procedure, while others provide support by volunteering childcare, transportation, doula services, housing, etc. Supporting your local fund is one way that you can ensure that those most marginalized from access receive the healthcare they need. The National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) can help you find a fund in your area where you can donate or volunteer.