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A card holding "A pro-choice catholic was here" is held in front of a federal building

Courtesy of Catholics For Choice

Catholic abortion doulas comfort the faithful in a post-Roe world

Abortion doula Emily Likins has many books in her house, but there’s one that she refers to as her “bible” when she’s working. It’s called Decision Assessment and Counseling in Abortion Care by Alissa Perrucci.

“One of the chapters here specifically addresses spiritual conflict,” Likins said. “There’s lots of examples of how you could counsel someone to go from feeling like God will never forgive them for having an abortion to feeling like, maybe God is actually comforting them during their abortion.”

Likins is an independent, full-spectrum doula based in South and West suburban Chicago. Her work involves offering emotional support and guidance to people throughout all stages of family planning and pregnancy, which includes abortion care.

She says many of her clients, even the ones seeking an abortion, are religious. And are like her – Catholic.

But Likins said her faith doesn’t contradict her work, but rather informs her on how to help people as they seek and go through with an abortion. Sometimes when clients feel like they’re committing a sin, she tells them: “Forgiveness is the ultimate crux of Christianity. I remind people that God loves them, and God forgives them and that God sees their pain.”

Likins currently lives where she grew up in Manhattan, an enclave of 10,000 people just outside of Joliet, where she said, everybody is Catholic. Growing up, her local Catholic church was pretty progressive. Her priest would give sermons geared toward uplifting the oppressed which stuck with her.

But it wasn’t until she turned 16, when her church got new leadership, that the tenor had changed.

“It was just more about policing behaviors and a little bit less about helping the unfortunate,” Likins said.

Nonetheless reproductive health care remained a big part of her childhood into young adulthood. From helping her mom as she went through a pregnancy via in vitro fertilization to witnessing a homebirth at her neighbor’s.

And then at 21, Likins had an unplanned pregnancy. She did a lot of thinking and praying, and came to the conclusion that she needed an abortion.

“But I was grieving,” Likins said. “I felt shameful for putting myself in a situation where I needed to make this choice. The partner that I had also felt deep shame and didn’t want us to talk about this to anyone.”

But shame isn’t all Likins felt. The abortion clinic staff overwhelmed her with kindness and acceptance. After volunteering at a couple of the clinic’s fundraising events, she became an abortion counselor there. It’s where Likins learned how to be a doula.

Now as a working doula, she fields all kinds of reproductive health questions — mostly from her younger siblings’ friends, but also other religious community members.

“‘Hey, Emily, where do I get an STD test without my parents finding out?”’ Likins said they ask her. “I love being that resource. Obviously, that’s why I’m a doula. But it’s kind of sad.”

Seven hundred miles away Kate Hoeting is hoping to break the stigma around abortion that she said runs deep in most Catholic communities.

“The Pew studies, the Gallup studies … all of which show time and time again that Catholics actually pretty much agree on abortion, and they think that abortion should be legal,” Hoeting said.

Hoeting is a Catholic abortion doula based in Washington D.C. She also serves as a writer and managing editor for Catholics for Choice, an international nonprofit that promotes access to abortion within the context of Catholicism.

They often hold demonstrations such as one that countered the 2022 March for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception in the nation’s capital – the largest Roman Catholic church in the country.

“When we projected on the bell tower, we projected facts. We projected things like one in four abortion patients is Catholic,” Hoeting said.

That’s according to 2014 data from the Guttmacher Institute – a reproductive health research and policy nonprofit. And the Pew Research Center found that in 2019, 68% of Catholic adults in the U.S. did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark case a year ago, President Joe Biden, who’s Catholic, said the ruling was an “extreme ideology” and “tragic mistake.”

Hoeting said the belief that abortion is sin comes from the exclusively-male leadership.

“When we’re talking about a group of the bishops, which are ostensibly celibate men, they don’t have wives, they don’t have daughters,” Hoeting said. “They are in this sort of isolated state, where they don’t always realize that everybody is touched by abortion.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly rejected Catholics for Choice as a Catholic organization.

Hoeting said the bishops’ messaging has left many of her Catholic doula clients to feel isolated. When she shares with them that she is also Catholic, many of them are brought to tears.

“Just to give someone a hand to hold, I think is some of the most powerful work that we do,” Hoeting said.

Likins experiences that reaction as well.

She will often pray with her Christian patients, and guide them through the process by asking questions like: “Is there a manifestation of this situation where God actually agrees with your decision to have an abortion and sees you as a person who is hurting and in need of kind care, compassion, saving?”

The same kind of care and compassion she was given more than a decade ago at the abortion clinic. Likins said that day shifted the way she interacted with clients.

“I saw so many different people who all just needed an abortion,” Likins said. “And they weren’t incompetent. They were loving, and they were mostly already mothers. And this is such an intentional decision that they’re making about their life.”

In the year since Roe fell, Likins said she’s also seen a shift among some of the more fundamentally religious doulas who would refuse to help patients seeking abortion care.

“Now almost all of the birth workers I’ve interacted with very proudly and openly express their political views about abortion,” Likins said. “But also their fundamental belief that it’s a part of a spectrum of health care that they help people navigate.”

No matter what faith they follow.

Mawa Iqbal covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow her @mawa_iqbal.

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