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The Reproductive Health Externship: Creating an Active Advocate


Trust Women

By Oliver Reagan, second year medical student and current MSFC member

I have always been a passive supporter of a woman’s right to choose—an ally who would quietly affirm my support if asked but who would not go out of my way to engage in discourse about abortion and family planning. This past spring I underwent a transformation in terms of how I thought about issues of reproductive justice and my need to be a part of the dialogue. As states continue to pass legislation that places undue barriers in the way of women seeking safe and legal abortion it is clear that there is not time to be silent.

When I entered the clinic on the first day of my Reproductive Health Externship (RHE) I remember feeling uneasy and uncertain about what the experience would be like. I will always remember something that my attending said to me on my first day—it speaks volumes about both the care she has for her students, her patients and for the humanity of her medical practice. She told me, “there is no wrong way to feel when you observe a termination. You may feel a mix of emotions and it is important to realize that that is OK.  Here we talk about our feelings. This is difficult for everyone, but remember that this is about making a difference in patients’ lives”. This advice laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most important and transformative experiences for me as future physician and provider.

My RHE experience taught me that people from all walks of life seek safe abortion services. They are women with planned pregnancies carrying babies with terrible genetic anomalies. They are women who are already mothers and cannot financially manage another child.  They are young women for whom a child doesn’t yet fit into the equation. The overall conclusion is that there is not a “typical” woman who seeks an abortion.  The truth behind the matter is that 1 in 3 women in the U.S. have an abortion by the time they reach menopause and that 50% of all pregnancies are unplanned. The societal silencing of discussion about abortion prevents us from acknowledging these truths and the critical role that access to safe and legal abortion plays in women’s health care. Too often, anti-choice groups paint abortion providers as individuals who in some way push woman toward a decision to terminate a pregnancy. This summer I worked with physicians and nurses who worked with great compassion to support women as they made one of the most difficult decisions of their lives. Women were asked not only about why this was not the right time for a pregnancy, but were also counseled about all of their possible options. In no situation was a woman who was on the fence ever encouraged or pushed toward a decision she was not ready to make. The tact and the humanity of the providers I worked with were truly remarkable and inspirational.

When it comes down to it, all of the women I had the privilege of taking care of had thought deeply and carefully about their decision. It is not something any of them took lightly. For these women it was one of the most difficult choices of their lives, requiring deep emotional reflection about what carrying this pregnancy to term would mean for them (and potentially their families).  When I reflect on mandatory waiting periods imposed by state legislatures for women seeking abortion services, I think back to these women and the conversations we had.  Many of them faced significant financial challenges just to get to their first appointment. This includes not only missed wages but also the cost of transportation and lodging (many came from hundreds of miles away). The financial burden is substantial before the cost of the procedure is even added in.  When states demean women by forcing them to “wait”, they imply that they are incapable of making decisions about their bodies and show a disregard for the emotional and financial toll it takes on them. I feel privileged to be trained in a state that values access to safe abortion and does not place undue burdens on its providers and patients. It has helped me to see what access should be like for women all over this country and it underscores the need for providers, nurses, students and allies to stand up and expose these restrictions for what they are—tools designed to limit a woman’s right to access a safe and legal medical procedure.

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