January 22, 2013

Forty Years and Carrying On

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, granting women across the United States the right to make decisions about their body and the right to keep those decisions private between themselves and their doctors.  This decision has had and enormous impact on women's lives ever since, permitting them the freedom to choose their own destiny and control their fertility.  As part of NARAL's Blog for Choice event, I want to share my reasons for being pro-choice.  Like any woman choosing abortion, every person's reason for being pro-choice is unique; we all travel many roads to get here, but we arrive here all the same.


Medical ethics has four principal tenets: autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice.  All of these are fulfilled by abortion.  By respecting a woman’s autonomy, you allow her to maintain bodily integrity.  In allowing her to determine when is best for her to have a child, you the physician are both doing no harm to her and are doing good by restoring her body to its previous state.  Finally, the more accessible abortion and birth control are, the more you are serving the cause of justice; self-determination should not be for the rich and the privileged, but for all.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that abortion is a medically ethical practice.  However, it tells you next to nothing about why I personally am pro-choice.

I want to be an obstetrician-gynecologist. Even as a young girl, when I decided I wanted to be a doctor, I was drawn to women’s health.  To me, it was and is the quintessential medical field: more ancient than Hipprocrates, full of the mystery of life, always in constant demand, one of the few joyful reasons to see a doctor—I could imagine no greater calling.  Whether it was hearing the story of my own birth in a hospital on a snowy December night, or vague memories of my brother being born at home with a midwife—I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

I remember being young, maybe in middle school, and asking my mother if she was pro-choice or pro-life.  Abortion must have figured strongly in the novel I was reading at the time (perhaps Case of Need by Michael Crichton or Midwives by Chris Bohjalian).  Regardless, I distinctly remember her reply.  “Why should some old man sitting in the Capitol building, who will never carry a child or be in my shoes, get to decide what I do with my body?”  From the beginning, abortion to me was defined as an issue of autonomy and control over one’s body.

The issue is, of course, more complex than that.  Growing up in Missouri, I was exposed to plenty of rhetoric in public discourse about 24-hour waiting periods, pharmacists’ rights to conscientiously object to providing birth control or emergency contraception, and of course, abstinence-only education.  Gradually, it became clear to me that other people did not seem to think that a woman should have control over her body.  I also became more conscious of state-level restrictions imposed to specifically insert the government between a physician and her patient.  As someone who’s never taken well to egregious authoritarianism (just ask my mother), this rankled.  My hackles were raised by this intrusion.

 My years at university served me well: the liberal arts exposed me to diversity, women's studies classes, anthropology, and public health.  That, coupled with an avid appetite for political news, had me following the rising tide of anti-abortion legislation closely.  I was horrified and appalled, but as of yet unmoved to much action.

Fast forward to medical school.  Here, I realized I could take a bigger role in lots of service and activism; during one of the first AMA meetings, the speaker exhorted us to champion those medical causes which would best serve our patients.  Not only did we have the opportunity to add our voice--coupled, when necessary, to our impending social rank as future physicians--we also had a duty to speak up when the government was making health policy decisions.I took this to heart, and became very active in our Medical Students for Choice chapter.  It wasn't until I attended the national conference for MSFC that year that I knew how strongly I felt and what my role would be.  Listening to the keynote speaker describing barriers to abortion and the vast impact they had on our patients, I was called to pick up this mantle.  I knew that weekend that I would one day become a provider, come hell, high water, or Republicans.

Since then, I've found myself reading more and more about the struggles in all its forms for access to comprehensive reproductive health care.  The more I've read, the more I've realized that abortion is now a matter not just of autonomy, but of critical women's rights.  Abortion rights and the fight for access is now part of a huge cultural shift that I have watched happen, and suddenly I find myself unwilling to lie down and take this silently.

I was pro-choice from the first time I learned about abortion because no one gets to tell me what to do with my body.  But now, I am pro-choice for all women, because we are still fighting for equal pay, equal health care coverage, equal treatment, and the benefit of basic dignity.  The rise of waiting-periods, ultrasounds, and mandatory counseling scripts speaks volumes: legislators still think of women as children, incapable of making such difficult decisions rationally, and who must thus be protected from their own poor judgment.  Well, excuse my language, but I think that is horseshit of the highest order.

On the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I am resolved: I will not budge, I will not be deterred.  These attacks by the far right will not stand.  I refuse to be told as a woman that I must be an incubator, and I refuse to be told as a physician that I cannot perform a medical procedure that is safer than childbirth for my patients that need it.  I refuse to believe that women are less important than the fetus they are carting around, and I refuse to be quiet.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

January 21, 2013

New year, same hope

This is the happiest January I have had in years, possibly since high school.

The Mayans were blessedly right, and 2013 is a good year so far: let's hope it truly is the beginning of a new human era.  Maybe this one will be marked with compassion, with understanding for our fellow man, with pragmatism instead of dogma, with solutions instead of stalemates, with love instead of vitriol.