By Niki Leong, Class of 2021 at UCDSOM*
I saw my first D&C as a pre-med college student, who had been newly introduced to the possibilities of ob/gyn. Despite being pro-choice, this experience deeply affected me and made me question my limits in the abortion debate. It also made me realize that being pro-choice does not necessarily translate into becoming an abortion provider, and I wondered how else I could advocate as a physician. Years later, as a second year medical student at UC Davis SOM, I attended the 2018 MSFC Conference on Family Planning, hoping to gain perspective from current and future abortion providers to better understand my own stance and where I fit in the movement.
Sharing a hotel room with three other medical students from across the country gave me invaluable insight to the state of abortion and reproductive health beyond the conference walls. California, Iowa, Illinois, Connecticut, Massachusetts—each student brought a wealth of knowledge about their hometown experiences as women and how they differ from their patients’. It is amazing to recognize that even among the progressive classmates at my own school, a stigma exists that prevents open, unapologetic discussion of reproductive needs. At this conference, in the safety of our shared hotel room, we were able to break the silence in a way that’ll change how we approach our future patients. Medication side effects, health fears, LGBTQ-oriented care, communication shortcomings – as medical students we are especially equipped to advocate for our own reproductive health, but our stories revealed that we are still subject to an imperfect system that hurts our patients even more.
Outside of these anecdotes, we were also able to compare the medical school curricula. Echoing a panelist’s anatomy experience several decades ago, one of my roommates said that her medical school spent a day and a half on men’s reproductive physiology, while women’s reproduction received half a day of instruction. As lucky as I felt to receive more balanced reproductive education at my institution, I stopped short when my roommate asked, “where are the histology slides of the clitoris? Why aren’t we talking about female pleasure?” In these small ways, I became re-sensitized to the often paternalistic shortcomings to truly inclusive reproductive education.
Aside from these private conversations, I also gained a lot from the conference sessions. Building Resilience in Providers of Color was one of the most powerful discussions I attended at this conference. Compared to the main conference hall and 6 different discussion sessions, this room was the first where I was blown away by the predominance of tan and brown faces. The contrast was a visual testament to the lack of diversity in our country’s future abortion providers, a striking issue when we think about minority health outcomes like maternal mortality. In this discussion we began to contextualize Reproductive Justice for providers and patients beyond abortion. One of the black Family Planning fellows shared a story where an ob/gyn colleague asked her, “if black women’s lives are already so hard, why are they still having babies?” The room seemed to react in unison: surprise, hurt, anger. How could an ob/gyn, someone uniquely attuned to women’s needs and the inequalities of reproductive health, make such a comment? How could she so casually dismiss institutional racism by blaming the women she is supposed to serve? It is easy to imagine that we have made great strides in reproductive health, but stories like these are crucial reminders that intersectionality and equity still have so much further to go.
Hearing these perspectives and sharing these experiences with like-minded future providers reinforces my conviction that abortion services are a necessary component of quality reproductive care. It is reassuring to know that there are powerful people who are fighting the good fight in legislation, in curriculum, and in the clinics themselves. As a student, I think it’s important to spread the dialogue within my community as controversial as it may be. A pregnancy can carry immense value to some patients and physicians or it can carry no weight at all; as I struggled to understand my own feelings around abortion, it was reassuring to recognize that I wasn’t alone among the current and future providers. I walked away from this conference with a deep respect for abortion providers and the inspiration to do more. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to attend the MSFC Family Planning conference and hope I can use the activities, thought experiments, conviction, and newfound colleagues to become the provider that I want to be.
*Please note that my opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my institution