By MEGAN MASTEN
I’m a medical student dedicated to reproductive rights.
I was lucky to be raised in an open-minded community with a family who was openly pro-choice. Abortion was a common topic at my house, and I felt safe to talk about it in any capacity at any time. I have found that advocating for abortion, contraception, and women’s health in general are the most interesting and important part of my medical training to date.
My undergraduate university offered extensive women’s studies classes, and I took a class called “Women’s Reproduction” that focused heavily on contraception and abortion. My professor was an Ob/Gyn who provided abortions. She has been a mentor to me and a major inspiration behind my dedication to abortion work. She gave a lecture about how stigmatized abortion providers were. Even though many of her colleagues said they were “pro-choice,” very few would personally provide abortions. She compared being an abortion provider to being a garbage collector; many people knew this was necessary work, but many thought it was dirty work that they themselves could never perform.
At this point in my life, I knew that I wanted to go to medical school and I was starting to become very passionate about women’s health. I recognized that women’s health is a very undeserved part of medicine. During this lecture, I had the realization that I was going to be one of the few people in this country legally qualified to provide abortions. Abortion is a choice I deeply believed in – what would it mean if I had the capacity and skill set to perform them but shirked the responsibility?
I realized I had gained another life purpose. I started having meaningful conversations with friends and family, and sometimes these conversations were very difficult. I started telling people how much reproductive rights meant to me, and how I felt like my calling will include providing abortions.
When I began medical school I was lucky to find that my university had a Medical Students for Choice chapter that I became very active in. I was sponsored to go to the Abortion Training Institute, where I learned how to provide abortion procedures and more about abortion regulations in this country. Through the next two years I helped set up movie screenings in my community about abortion, volunteered with my local abortion clinic, and shadowed an abortion provider in the Midwest last summer. All of my experiences reinforced my passion for reproductive rights.
The most surprising thing to me about medical school when I started was how stigmatized abortion is in medical training. Most people don’t realize this but few medical students in the U.S. learn about abortion in a meaningful way. We had four lectures on collagen, but none on abortion. We had maybe a maximum of three slides that mentioned the medications to induce abortion but had no meaningful discussions about surgical versus medical abortions, the reasons why people seek abortions, who can provide abortions, or how to perform the procedures. Even asking professors or physicians about abortion can be challenging.
A group of classmates and I ended up meeting with the dean of our college to discuss the limited education about abortion and contraception in our curriculum. The response was largely that although these are important issues, our curriculum is already full and hopefully during clinical rotations we will be able to learn about these issues. I am just beginning my clinical experiences but classmates who have rotated through Ob/Gyn unfortunately say that these issues are still seldom discussed. I’ve personally asked several Ob/Gyns about abortion, and many tell me it’s a topic they aren’t interested in discussing. It has proved to be a major challenge – it’s challenging to find anyone who is willing to talk about abortion with you. If you do, it is likely that they are not pro-choice.
I assumed that medicine was one of the only communities that would embrace difficult debates about healthcare. Abortion is clearly a charged issue and many people have strong feelings about it. I can understand why many parts of society don’t discuss abortion, but it’s a very common medical procedure and should be discussed openly in the medical field. There would be an outrage if medical students were suddenly not allowed to learn about other common procedures. It would never be okay for a medical student to graduate without understanding what a colonoscopy is and why and how it is performed, yet it’s standard for medical students to graduate without any knowledge about elective pregnancy terminations. 1 in 3 people will get an abortion in their lifetime – there is no other procedure that 1 in 3 people could get that we wouldn’t learn about in medical school.
Although it is discouraging that abortion is not taught to medical students and many physicians aren’t educated or are willing to talk about it, I do see this as an opportunity for growth. Personally, I’ve made it important to talk about abortion openly with friends, family, and classmates in a respectful way that advocates for the importance of reproductive services in this country. Data shows us that whether or not it is legal, people will continue to get abortions.
Providers and policy makers need to decide if we are willing to help people receive these services in a safe environment with a trained professional. Physicians who were trained before Roe vs. Wade were strong advocates for the legalization of abortion – they saw the horrors of illegal abortion and would see women hemorrhaging or even dying from unsafe procedures. With safe abortions that are not taught in standard medical curriculum, students have become ambivalent and unaware of the necessity of this service. I hope to encourage more students to seek information about abortion, even though it isn’t easy to obtain. I urge more people to speak openly about it and not say “abortion” in a whisper but instead use their voices in normal volume.
To augment my clinical experiences and make a difference in my community I have recently started escorting at our local abortion clinic. This has been an experience that fuels me more than any other volunteer experience I’ve had. The patients and their loved ones who I have had the pleasure of meeting have reminded me of why I went into medicine in the first place. People who come to the clinic for abortions might feel all types of emotion – relief, sadness, nervousness – and to walk with them this time is an absolute honor. There is still a lot of work to be done for abortion to be openly accepted and discussed within both the medical field and the general community at large, and I am privileged to be one of the people dedicated to this work!
[featured image source: stethoscope with blue background created by Freepik ]