In the 1990s, I ran an abortion
clinic near Seattle, Washington. A most rewarding career – in all my
years as a physician, I’ve never had so many patients thank me for
helping them. But at the same time, I worried that I belonged to an
Like the spotted owl, our habitats
were being invaded and destroyed – not by loggers but by anti-choice
protestors. These were the years of virulent anti-abortion activity,
when my colleagues faced arson and acid attacks all too often. One doctor
told me about a day when he performed an abortion as members of Operation
Rescue battered down the clinic doors with a telephone pole. When he
finished the procedure, his terrified patient got up, hugged him so
tight he could barely move, and said, "You can’t leave us now."
Those of us providing abortions
in the 1990s were determined to stay with our patients. But like an
endangered species, we were restricted to such a small habitat that
we could not expand our numbers. Medical schools and residencies often
failed to teach physicians-in-training about abortion or made it near
impossible for residents to train at an outside clinic. Meanwhile, the
provider population was getting older. Many doctors continued working
past retirement age
so their patients wouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles to get
The threats abortion providers
faced in the 1990s did have one benefit: they rallied the provider community
to preserve this endangered – but highly valued – species of physicians.
We formed new organizations, like Physicians
for Reproductive Choice and Health
Students for Choice,
that were dedicated to training the next generation of providers and
reducing the stigma around abortion. In 1996, March 10 was declared
a National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers. We’re still
waiting for Hallmark to make us a special line of greeting cards, but
the very existence of a day honoring abortion providers is a step in
the right direction.
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The threats to abortion providers
have changed since the 1990s. Violent attacks, thankfully, have diminished.
Our pro-choice president is quietly reversing some of the most egregious
policies of the Bush administration, including a midnight regulation
allowing a broad range of medical workers to refuse to provide reproductive
But abortion providers aren’t
off the endangered species list yet. Even as federal policies improve,
many states are doing their best to limit abortion. The latest anti-choice
gambit requires doctors to provide an ultrasound – and often play a
fetal heartbeat – for any woman who wants an abortion. As if she hasn’t
already thought hard enough about her decision! I treated thousands
of women at my clinic, and not a single one took her choice lightly.
While we try to fend off state
legislatures, we also watch out for the Supreme Court, which is just
one vote away from overturning Roe v. Wade. The most conservative
justices are likely to remain on the Court for decades. And too few
medical schools and residency programs offer training in abortion, especially
like family medicine.
Even doctors who identify as pro-choice aren’t always willing to offer
Want to help save the endangered
abortion provider? Here are three things you can do today. If you know a doctor who provides
them for what they do. Call or write to your elected officials and ask
them to consult with an abortion provider before voting on any abortion-related
legislation. Too often, bills are passed without input from the very
people they affect most. Finally, if you’ve had an abortion, tell
someone about it. One in three women will have an abortion by age 45,
yet it remains a taboo topic. The more we can talk openly and honestly
about women’s abortion experiences, the more we can reduce the stigma
around this procedure.