Abortion as an Act of Motherhood: A Conversation with Hannah Matthews
You or Someone You Love: Reflections from an Abortion Doula
by Hannah Matthews
Atria Books (2023); 352 pp.; $17.66 (Paperback)Buy Book
Hannah Matthews wears a lot of hats—none of them are particularly glamorous, but all of them are important. She’s an abortion care worker, funder, and doula. She’s a mother. She’s a writer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the New York Times, ELLE, Esquire, TIME, Jezebel, McSweeney’s, Teen Vogue, and elsewhere. Her debut book, You or Someone You Love, came out on May 2 from Atria Books.
You or Someone You Love is for everyone. It is an actionable resource, an education, and a love letter, divided into thirty sections or “access points” that invite readers in on their own terms: “Abortion is Joy.” “Abortion is Pain.” “Abortion Is Parenting.” “Abortion is a Crime.” “Abortion is A Holy Blessing.” Et cetera.
Author Meghan Flaherty met with Matthews via Zoom in March to talk about motherhood, abortion, radical care, and liberation in the burning world. This conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Meghan Flaherty: How does it feel to put something into the world that is so deeply your story, but also the product of such collaboration? That responsibility must feel enormous.
Hannah Matthews: I think a lot of books are [the product of collaboration] but don’t know it about themselves. There’s a lot of individualism in writing, generally. Of course that makes sense; you’re doing the work physically alone. It does not have the editor’s name. It does not have your agent’s name, your publicist’s name, your interview subjects’ names on the cover. But I never want to lose sight of the fact that this is not some achievement I have created in a vacuum from nothing. This was, in so many ways, given to me and taught to me and shared with me. The labor of the book was shared with my husband, who raised our son and did so much while working full-time in order for me to write it. It was shared with my mother. I never ever want to lose sight of how dependent I am on everyone around me.
MF: You wrote about the Afiya Center in Texas—how the doulas there wanted to be quoted and credited collectively, because there was no place for ego or individualism in this work. There’s a real humility in the book but also bravery on your part. You’re willing to put your name in bold letters on the cover and let most of the anti-abortion hate mail go to you.
HM: I do think this is kind of a crucial moment for those of us who are safest. I am white. I am in a very high-access state. My work can be public without criminalization right now. And so those are things that I feel like I need to use.
MF: To what extent was the leak of the Dobbs decision [which overturned Roe v. Wade (1973)] a factor in the shape of the book or your urgency in getting it out?
HM: I wrote the proposal and signed the contract in summer/fall of 2021. The Dobbs decision came down in June of 2022, but we knew it was coming. The anti-abortion contingent in the US has not been hiding their cards.
Everyone I spoke to for the book, everyone I’ve worked with in other states, everyone had this attitude that we’re going to do our work up until the very moment we legally can’t. It is this very exhausting limbo. We’re here again with the mifepristone ruling [which suspends the FDA’s approval of an essential abortion drug.]
MF: That uncertainty feels reflected in the way you’ve structured the book, the way you play with the chronology of your own story and the chronology of the legal, geographical situation. There’s an ongoingness, as if the text mirrors the reality of what’s happening now. You’ve given your reader a primer to cope with the flux, where multiple timelines are happening at once. To what extent was that intentional?
HM: It reflects the chaos of my mind and my work. Getting up every day and saying, “Okay, this law was blocked by an emergency injunction—so we have 24 hours to help this person in this place, and then we don’t know what’s going to happen.” Parenthood is also like that for me: this nonlinear place. There’s no such thing as over. Abortion doesn’t end, just like pregnancy doesn’t end. There’s no point at which people will not be having abortions. Knowing that, how can we live through all these endings and beginnings and crescendos? You just have to let go. That’s something I’ve also been practicing with raising this child . . . I’ve felt a lot of grief as he’s grown up, feeling such deep despair that he is a year older than he was a year ago.
MF: You wrote about parenthood being “a near-constant landslide of grief.” That’s exactly how it feels. You’re just watching the world get worse and your child go further and further into it. And you can’t protect anyone.
HM: If you feel despair, feel it, because that is an appropriate response. If you feel rage, feel it.
MF: I was so moved by your description of your grief in this book. You’ve really rendered the full human requiem of abortion—the idea that it can be easy and legal and safe and no big deal, but it can also be this really meaningful transition. I wanted to know whether you were more motivated to write this book once you had your own abortion story to share.
HM: One thing that I have felt missing from conversations about abortion with folks who are not working in the abortion care movement is just this curiosity. You can’t compare pregnancies. You can’t compare deaths. You can’t compare children. You can’t compare marriages. And you can’t compare abortions. Even though mine was really difficult, and it remains really difficult to share and talk about just because it’s tender and raw and sometimes feels like pressing on a bruise, mine is the only abortion that I can really describe and explain.
I’ve encountered people in my work and my personal life who have felt shame about their shame [about their abortions], or shame about their grief [over their abortions]. That is so horrifying to me—that we, people who are vocally pro-abortion, have contributed to others feeling that way.
MF: You write about making a house for your clients as a metaphor for the care you provide. The book too becomes a kind of house, a place where people can be invited in, and take up space. You’ve embedded the listening in the telling, mirroring what you’re asking your reader to do, which is to listen and to witness.
HM: It is this constant dance of, am I telling this story in this way and in this medium because I think it will be useful to someone else? Or am I telling the story because I’m saying, “Please love me?” Not that any motivation bars you from telling the story, I just think it’s worth examining.
With this book, I felt strongly that I wanted people to be able to pick it up, look at the sections, and say, “Okay. I feel like reading about this experience that is similar to mine, or that I’m curious about.” I hope people feel comfortable skipping [sections].
MF: That’s what you meant by “access points.”
HM: Yeah. Abortion is, like sex, just a fact of a human body in that it’s relevant to every human being. But you need to find what actually is relevant [to each reader] if you want them to care.
MF: The text is a resource—for everyone, even people who don’t think they need a resource for abortion. You’re saying, it’s quite simple, actually. Just GIVE A SHIT. (And that, I want to get tattooed somewhere.)
HM: I do think we’ve so diluted the meaning of caring about something to, you post about it on social media, and that signifies to the world that you care. Or like, you read a news story and feel upset. That is caring. But what’s the next thing? Give a shit.
MF: It’s so important, given the fact that 60% of abortion patients are already parents, to address the ways in which abortion is not the antithesis of parenting. You write about that with so much love, and you write about the idea that abortion can complicate one’s ability to embrace a parent identity. Those sections were so moving.
HM: Parenthood is so connected. Torrey Peters was on a podcast—I think Gender Reveal—and she was talking about how trans women and cis women have this common ground of being expected to perform womanhood, and just constantly failing at womanhood. There’s no way to succeed, so you’re just always failing—motherhood being a huge place where you’re just getting up every day failing at being a woman. Whether it’s not losing weight after you have a baby or not preparing organic food for your child, or complaining, or not smiling, or whatever it is. I think abortion fits into that spectrum as well. I wish abortion as an act of motherhood was an idea that had been shared with me before my abortion. I wish I’d had an example of a mother who said, this abortion is me being a mother to this family.
So many of my patients, so many of my friends, so many doula clients—their abortions have to fit into the very intense work of raising the children they have, and that is something that I think we talk about logistically (“oh, what a financial burden on mothers”) or physically (“oh, she can’t have another baby because she had this high-risk birth, or her uterus has this issue”), but we don’t talk enough about what that looks like emotionally, when we have made the identity of mothers so rigid.
MF: You wrote, “An ending is a beginning, and one thing makes another possible. So abortion may not create everything, but it can create anything.” Birthing bodies have the capacity to create—but also destroy. This was the first time I felt there was any joyous agency described in the destruction part. You showed how open-ended and wide that is, as wide as the hugely diverse range of people who make that choice. I really loved the ambiguity and the space in that.
HM: I feel strongly—and I don’t expect everyone to think of it this way—but I fully think of abortion as a form of birth control. The way that we celebrate the freedom that comes with any other form of contraception, I think we should celebrate abortion in that way. Again, this is not to say you can’t have a deeply traumatic abortion experience, or be having abortions without real choice and agency, which is heartbreaking and another way in which you’re being controlled and oppressed.
I have this two-year-old, who is incredible—like, killing me slowly—but also just the most perfect being. I love him so much. I’m hoping to have more children in the future. Whatever children come through me are going to come through me because I had this abortion, and wouldn’t exist if I had not had it. That’s something I really want people to focus on when they focus on what abortion can give us, or what abortion can free us to do.
MF: You mentioned your abortion tattoo in the book. Can you tell me about that?
HM: So, I have a few. This tattoo is a bouquet of seaweed—the laminaria, the seaweed we use for cervical dilation. And then this tattoo is a manual vacuum aspirator, which is what my midwife used for my in-clinic abortion, and there’s a poppy growing from it. The poppy is my birth month flower, so it’s kind of like I am being born from this instrument.
MF: This book feels important because these narratives have been so flattened. You’re turning these flat sketches into dioramas. It’s a call to action, but also just an intimate view into other lives, in that quiet way books are tools for empathy. Did you struggle at all with the balance of activism versus narrative?
HM: A lot of people in my life think of me as this hyper-political, outspoken activist, which makes me a little bit sad because I really don’t think of myself that way. In terms of abortion rights in the US and abortion law, I feel like the public has come down on one side, which is that most of us support abortion being legal. I feel like it’s time to just be getting people the abortion care they want, and figuring out ways to do that.
I’m not a lawyer. I’m just going to sit with this one person and figure out what they need, and how I can help them get what they need.