A fellow first year medical student was in my bedroom one evening last week. I was sprawled on my bed, she was sitting in my well-loved-by-humans-and-cats orange velour armchair, bought by my grandmother in 1962 at Sears when firey orange was a reasonable color to use to upholster furniture or paint hallways. I love that chair – it sat under my lofted bed in the attic room I shared with my sister during my childhood, and it came with me to college where it was moved from dorm to dorm through four years, residing with me or with friends in almost every New England state over the summers. It’s not pretty, or new, or fashionable, but I love it. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s me.
That night we were chatting about the upcoming challenges in our lives: balancing medical school with family and friends, the difficulties of finding time to do the other things we love in life, anticipated academic difficulties. We also found ourselves talking about family and the future, and the conversation moved in the direction of babies. Several of our classmates and friends had recently given birth. We talked of their challenges and the similarities and differences of our lives. As often follows, we talked of our own thoughts on having children.
My disinterest in having my own children is often perceived as pathology, something many women experience. But I find that in particular, everyone has an opinion when they find out these two things about me: that I’m interested in specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, and that I don’t plan to have children of my own. In this instance, my fellow first year latched onto my interest in abortion, taking it as a twisted motivation to prevent others from having children. She questioned my ability to be an impartial compassionate health provider to those who make different reproductive decisions than mine, and mused that patients would be able pick up on my silent judgment of them and their choices.
In addition to the personal hurt this conversation brought, it made me think about having an academic interest in medicine as a woman, the persistent sexism we face in medicine, from institutions, classmates and even friends. Medicine is incredibly hierarchical and conservative, with a past (and often a present) rife with abuses, injustice, and paternalism. Speaking up about these problems is a challenge, and I’ve been finding that it is difficult and exhausting to share my academic medical interests. You can bet that if my answer to the question “what specialty are you thinking about?” was ophthalmology, or pediatrics, or internal medicine, I wouldn’t be required to explain why I’m interested, why it’s important, and why it’s worth a lifetime of academic and professional investment.
I’m sure if abortion provision and family planning didn’t interest me, make me think, or inspire me, there would be something else: cardiology, surgery, infectious disease. And I strive to have an open mind to any subject – I’m sure I’ll make space in my learning and my practice for different things. But if my interests that brought me to medicine were different, I would be a different me. I would seek out different opportunities and partners and educational experiences. But this is me – I have an orange velour arm chair, and I have a legitimate, rigorous academic interest in becoming an abortion provider.