During my Ob/Gyn rotation last February, I met a pregnant patient in clinic. She was healthy and everything looked good for her anticipated delivery in a couple months. However, there was one fear this patient couldn’t overcome. She was terrified she was going to die during this delivery. Every day she woke up anxious that she wouldn’t make it through this pregnancy. My immediate internal reaction was confusion about why this patient was so worried about something that seemed extremely unlikely to me. In that moment, I reminded myself of the privilege I have as a white woman who could never understand what the Black patient in front of me was experiencing. In the United States, Black women are three times more likely to die during and after pregnancy than white women. As I was wondering why this patient was so preoccupied with the fear of dying during pregnancy, this woman was facing the very real fact that she was at an increased risk of death due to the effects systemic racism have had on her throughout her life.
After the murder of George Floyd in May, I learned Medical Students for Choice was starting a Racial and Reproductive Justice Reading Group for its members. I felt obligated to continue to educate myself on the issues and disparities existing in our country, acknowledging that my Black peers have not had the choice to solely “educate themselves,” but have been forced to reckon with racism for their entire lives. I decided to participate in the first reading group session. At the beginning of the session, we watched an interview with Loretta Ross, who is one of the creators of reproductive justice. The tenants of reproductive justice are as follows: all women and individuals with a uterus have the right to have children, the right to not have children, and the right to raise children in a safe and healthy environment. This concept has revolutionized my perspective and put a name to my beliefs in racial, social, and environmental justice in combination with reproductive health.
During the reading group, I listened to the perspectives of my peers from different backgrounds in addition to sharing my own ideas. We talked about patients similar to the one I encountered in my OB clinic. We discussed the necessity of advocating not just for white women, but in particular for our Black patients, our LGBTQ+ patients, and our patients with disabilities, to name a few. As someone who identifies as pro-choice, these discussions, videos, and readings led me to challenge and re-evaluate my ideas. There is so much more to reproductive justice than just being pro-choice: only being pro-choice isn’t enough. Many individuals throughout history and today do not have a so-called choice. Black, Native, and disabled populations, for instance, have historically experienced coercive medical and reproductive healthcare. Even today, we are seeing reports of non-consented hysterectomies in immigrant populations. As a future physician, it is important to be cognizant of people’s experiences and histories both within and outside of the medical system.
My experiences participating in the first session motivated me to facilitate and plan some of the discussions. The reading group has also impacted my school’s MSFC chapter’s work. At the Indiana University School of Medicine Indianapolis MSFC chapter, we are expanding our discussions to include topics like reproductive justice and racism. In addition to advocating for the inclusion of abortion in our curriculum, we are advocating for the removal of concepts rooted in racism, such as the idea race is a risk factor for disease. We want current and future IU students to learn this information as part of the standard curriculum instead of having to seek it out on their own.
As a medical student, I am constantly reminded it is impossible to know everything. However, we can learn from the experiences of others and continue to educate ourselves. The Racial and Reproductive Justice Reading Group provides a space to learn in a community with other medical students about topics we might not discuss as part of our schools’ curricula, and gives us the inspiration and tools to work on changing that. It is not easy to confront our own existing biases, but I will be a better doctor because of it. In a system that attempts to control the reproduction of Black patients, I will continue to talk about reproductive justice with my peers and patients, and in doing so, I hope to make a change within the medical field and society as a whole. Our fight for the fullness of true reproductive justice continues.