Defining the doula's role: fostering relational autonomy

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Training organizations as well as academic and popular literature provide ambiguous or ethically contentious characterizations of the role of the birth doula, a non-clinical role assisting women in pregnancy and birth with information and physical and emotional support. Doulas have been criticized for attempting to impose their own agendas on their clients and for interfering with the relationship between women and their medical caregivers.


To develop a theoretically grounded model of the birth doula's role to guide constructive practice and refute some training organizations' and doulas' adoption of an active ‘advocacy’ role with clients that can lead to inappropriate practices.


Apply the theoretical framework of relational autonomy to the components of the work that doulas perform with their clients.

Discussion and Conclusions

The conceptual framework of relational autonomy recognizes the social context in which women make choices about their care in pregnancy and birth, instead of assuming that autonomy is exercised in isolation. To support this understanding of autonomy, a relational model emphasizes women's skills development, self-confidence and recognition of the social context for decisions. Highlighting these aspects of exercising autonomy reduces the potential for the doula to seek to influence her client. The doula's role is reframed as one of facilitating patient engagement and shared decision-making.

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