I have been pro-choice since I was old enough to understand what it means. When I was in high school I had a pin on my backpack with the picture of a coat hanger with a big red slash over it, but I had no idea what kind of craziness the topic of abortion inspired until my first year of college. I was looking for an internship or volunteer opportunity, and made use of my college’s career services center. There was an internship advertised to counsel young women on pregnancy options. It sounded like a good idea to me, and I was optimistic until I heard a horrible-sounding video playing in the waiting room while I was waiting in the director’s office. I still didn’t totally understand what was going on, though, until I began to speak with the man who ran the office. Within a few minutes it was clear that he had an anti-abortion agenda, and was trying to convince me with some ridiculous claims about increased cancer, depression, and car accidents in women who had abortions. I got out of there quickly, and later realized that I had experienced a full-fledged “crisis pregnancy center,” and that the video I had heard was an anti-abortion classic full of misrepresentations known as “The Silent Scream.”
For some reason I didn’t act on my anger at that situation at the time. I attribute it to my lack of ability to care strongly about anything other than keeping up with my pre-med classes and my less emotionally fraught volunteer activities with children. I put the whole incident out of my mind, but the issue of choice showed up again when I started medical school.
Medical schools have a woeful lack of education about reproductive health issues affecting men and women alike. Although we would spend hours learning about a rare disease few of us would ever see, we spent about one hour learning about contraceptive methods and no time at all learning about abortion. Our Medical Students for Choice chapter tried to bring in someone from outside the school to discuss early abortion methods, only to find our efforts quashed by higher level administrators. We tried to incorporate an options counseling session into a student-run class on adoption but the course advisors left that session out of the syllabus. Our only success had nothing to do with our medical education (and everything to do with our well-being): we finally convinced the student health insurance provider to cover contraception.
The catalyzing moment for me, however, was in the summer between my first and second years, which I spent in a country in South America with a non-governmental organization dedicated to reproductive health. Abortion is illegal there, and I learned that women were routinely forced to pay bribes to police merely for being suspected of having obtained an illegal abortion. Another woman recounted a visit to a doctor who told her he had to have vaginal sex with her in order to perform the abortion. Women came to the hospitals days after having attempted to procure an abortion illegally, only to receive treatment that was often disrespectful and judgmental. The lengths to which they went to not be pregnant despite these risks made it clear to me that the ability to control one’s body and to choose when to give birth is a vitally important human right.
For medical students who want to be abortion providers it is not enough to choose a specialty (generally obstetrics & gynecology or family medicine) that confers the skills needed to provide abortions. Unfortunately, even though abortion is one of the most common gynecological surgeries in the country, and is at times required to save patients’ lives, many programs do not offer training. Those programs located at Catholic hospitals often don’t even provide training in contraceptive methods, much less abortion procedures. Even at non-religious hospitals all it takes is one anti-abortion higher-up to effectively end any opportunities for resident training.
I was fortunate to find and be accepted to a residency program offering abortion-training opportunities. I love providing because I know that I’m helping women take care of themselves and their families by choosing when to become parents. They have so many wonderful dreams: going to college, getting a job in graphic design, pursuing a career in dance, finishing high school, being a great mom to their toddler at home, becoming a lawyer, moving out of the shelter, helping take care of their grandchildren, going to nursing school, and hundreds of other amazing things. They are grateful to get back to their lives, and it is my privilege to help them.