By: Dr. Michelle Brown
As I reflect back on the 4 years of medical school that I just completed, MSFC has been an integral part of my experience here. The support that MSFC provided over the past 4 years for me personally and professionally has been incredible. One of the highlights of my involvement with MSFC was attending the Activist Leader’s Institute, a weekend-long event that brings together medical students from across the country to identify areas of potential change and to train students in discussing the need for abortion-related education with the both media and their medical school higher-ups (this content is now shared through the student organizing program). This experience empowered me to speak up when a recent bill severely threatened medical education in North Carolina.
The Dangers of House Bill 465
House Bill 465 was proposed by the NC House and would create a number of large abortion restrictions in our state. The bill included many provisions, including lengthening the waiting period before a woman could have an abortion from 24 to 72 hours, creating burdensome paperwork restrictions for providers who perform abortions, limiting the scope of who can perform abortions to OB/Gyns, and perhaps most alarmingly, a provision that would ban abortions from being performed at UNC and ECU hospitals, the hospitals affiliated with the two public medical schools in our state.
As I was reading about the law, I was very concerned about the implications on the education of my peers. This new law threatened to make education about abortion inaccessible for medical students and residents at UNC and ECU. Exposing medical students to abortion and training residents how to perform procedures is vital to ensuring North Carolina women have the comprehensive care the need and deserve.
Shortly after hearing about the law, a friend asked me if she could pass my name along to a colleague who worked at Planned Parenthood and was looking for residents and medical students who would be impacted by the law. My friend wasn’t involved in the medical field- she was a Philosophy student that I knew from playing in an orchestra. However, she knew that I would be a receptive audience member due to the fact that I was vocal about my involvement in MSFC in the past. It was a great reminder that everyone you meet can have connections to reproductive rights activism, and that simply engaging friends in conversation can lead to opportunities down the road.
The representatives from Planned Parenthood were organizing a rally on the UNC campus against HB 465, and asked if I would be willing to speak about the law and its impact on medical education. I wrote a five-minute speech that summarized the impact this bill would have on the training of future physicians, the pipeline of future providers, and the availability of this important procedure for the women of North Carolina.
Tips for Advocacy
I knew there would be representatives from the media at this rally, so I consulted one of my friends who has prior experience in PR work. He helped rehearse some common questions with me, and gave me some tips on how to look on camera. His most important recommendation was to have a few talking points that you could write on the back of an envelope, and stick to those points. No matter what question you’re asked, redirect your answer to emphasize a talking point.
We also practiced answering questions that would likely come up, such as “What brings you here to the rally today?” and “What impact will this bill have on medical education?” Rehearsing the answers to those questions out loud a few times was really helpful. It was especially useful to have feedback on my overall appearance on camera- comments like “don’t move your head around so much” helped highlight distractions to my message that I wasn’t even aware of.
At the rally, I was joined by a Family Planning physician from my university and a pediatrician from a neighboring state who spoke about her personal experience with abortion. Having those other speakers there helped me realize how important it was to speak out, and helped bolster my confidence. I was the last to speak.
From watching the prior two speakers, I knew that the acoustics were less than ideal. I projected my voice to be especially loud and made a conscious effort to slow my speech to be more understandable. (I had to speak up even more when an a capella group started singing right next to us towards the end of my speech- awkward). By focusing on projecting and speaking clearly, I had the most understandable and audible speech of the 3 given that day- despite the impromptu concert.
While at the event, I made it a point to network both before and after my speech. I spoke to all of the event organizers and many of the attendees. I also followed up via email with the organizers afterwards. The day after the event, a representative from NC Policy Watch- a web site that follows North Carolina politics- emailed Planned Parenthood and asked if they would write an opinion piece on HB 465. PP representatives then asked me if I could rewrite my speech to fit into an op-ed format, which I agreed to do (you can read it here). After it was published, I got a lot of great feedback from friends in the community. Getting the concerns about this bill in a written format was really important for gaining traction and provided a convenient way to link to a summary my point of view to share with others.
I was one of many, many voices that spoke up at rallies and in writing about the impact that HB 465 would have on medical student and resident education. The issue even got national attention with a piece in ThinkProgress. As a result of the onslaught of attention, the portion of the bill that would ban abortions from being performed at UNC and ECU was withdrawn.
This is a great relief to many faculty, residents, and medical students at these institutions. However, even with the changes that were made, HB465 is still an onerous bill that would force women undergoing abortion to have a 72 hour waiting period and would require documentation to be submitted to the state on abortions after 18 weeks for “statistical purposes”. By eliminating the portions of the bill with the most scrutiny- the portion that would prevent physicians from being trained- the bill is now more likely to pass through the NC Senate and become law. As always, the fight will continue. And, as always, medical students, residents and physicians have a powerful voice to use in that fight.
Michelle Brown is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and past president of the UNC chapter of Medical Students for Choice. She will begin her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Chicago next month.