Serving Women at Any Cost: The Founders of IAmDrTiller.com Speak Out

Sarah Erdreich

During the summer of 2009, Sarah Erdeich talked to dozens of young pro-choice activists and doctors about what motivated their work for reproductive justice, what concerns them most about the current state of abortion rights, and what they think the future holds for legal abortion in the U.S. This is the first of three interviews to be published at Rewire.

Author’s note: During the summer of 2009, I talked to dozens of young pro-choice activists and doctors about what motivated their work for reproductive justice, what concerns them most about the current state of abortion rights, and what they think the future holds for legal abortion in the U.S. In the following three interviews, four young activists – a law student, an attorney, and the creators of a pro-choice website – discuss these issues and also share their thoughts about why it’s so important for their peers to not take legalization for granted.  The interviews will appear in my forthcoming book, Generation Roe.  Sarah Erdreich


Interview with the founders of IAmDrTiller.com

Stephanie: Our
website
came out of a staff meeting at my clinic. We met
right after Dr. Tiller’s death; we were all talking about what we thought we
could do, and how we were feeling. And it came up that we never really talked
about why we do this work, and how maybe we could prevent these acts in the
future. I got to thinking about what it would be like to humanize abortion
providers, and I had the idea for this website. I immediately text messaged
Yahel and told him, buy the domain I Am Dr. Tiller and I’ll explain to you
later. We set it up really quickly that night.

Yahel: She had
this idea, it started out with the idea of women holding up signs saying “I am
Dr Tiller,” and telling their stories. Dr. Tiller works in Alabama, Dr. Tiller
volunteers in Philadelphia, etc.

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Stephanie:  I worked for an abortion access fund as
my work-study job through college, [and] a few friends and I brought back [the
college’s women’s center]. I was, like, big feminist on campus – pretty easy to
be at Bryn Mawr – which was really nice. Everyone was really supportive, and
that gave me a lot of confidence going forward. I grew up with my mom and my
sisters, so it’s really like a house of women. They know what I do; they’re a
little bit scared, because unfortunately that’s the reality in abortion care,
but they’re really proud of me. I’ve indoctrinated my sisters, they’re good
feminists.

Yahel: I’m an
indoctrinated younger sibling. I was raised by my parents, but my two older
sisters were both feminists in their own right. So I’ve always had a very
strong pro-woman outlook on life. I also grew up in a fairly liberal household
that was fairly estrogen-dominated, estro-democracy, whatever you call it.

In June 2009, Bill
O’Reilly mentioned Stephanie and Yahel’s website on his show.

Yahel: We don’t
have cable in our apartment, so I got a text message from my little brother
saying oh my god, Steph and your site was mentioned on Bill O’Reilly. My first
reaction was, why are you watching Bill O’Reilly?

Stephanie: We got
a lot of emails after that. A big influx, really condemning, “you’re going to
hell.” At the same time a few blogs picked it up and said obviously Bill
O’Reilly has no idea what it’s really about. Then on the other side, a lot of
pro-life websites picked it up saying oh my god, this website is like a den of
terror.

Yahel: It was
really disappointing, the Bill O’Reilly piece, because what they were disturbed
by was, [the women] weren’t showing their faces. But it completely missed the
point of, this is work in which women are putting themselves in danger and
they’re not comfortable if they want to share their stories. The sign is a
symbol of that fear. He just completely didn’t get it. “Show your faces.”

Stephanie: Then we
got emails that just proved why we needed to have people either not submit
photos or cover their faces, saying publish everyone’s address. At first my mom
was real scared. I don’t know how your parents reacted.

Yahel:  I’m not sure they knew, when the Bill
O’Reilly stuff happened. They know now. My parents are immigrants; the abortion
debate doesn’t make any sense to them. They’re from Israel, and in Israel women
have abortions, it’s not a big deal, no one really talks about it. It’s not the
third rail of their politics.

Stephanie: My mom
is Brazilian and it’s like the total opposite thing, because abortion is
completely illegal in Brazil.

Yahel: One woman
who posted, her mother basically told her that she was disowning her. We found
out a little bit later that through the intervention of her priest, her pastor,
I’m not sure who it was, she and her mother reconciled. Her mother has now sort
of accepted and come to understand it.

Stephanie: When I
was working at [an] abortion access fund [in college], it was much easier for
me to be, every day, yes, this is why I do this, it’s great. Because I would
just talk to people on the phone, there was no face-to-face. I was just
providing people with one part of the abortion experience, just helping them
raise the money, and that’s very easy and very gratifying. Being a clinic
counselor is different. Sometimes I have to tell people you know what, you have
this medical condition, we need you to get medical clearance and you’ll have to
come back in a week. And people want to punch me in the face – “no, I want to
have this abortion tomorrow, I shouldn’t have told you.” That can be very
frustrating. People who don’t talk, don’t care, and just want it to be over
with. And that’s just not the way it is, it’s going to affect you. You may be
so relieved and great after, but I want to make sure you’re ok. Yahel can
definitely speak to me being really frustrated when I come home from work.

Yahel: Three days
a week she comes home angry at work and at the world and frustrated. Then the
other days she comes home and feels really great about being to help women out
directly and guide them through. Those days she seems a lot happier about being
able to help women. She’s also pretty good proof that no one’s in this work for
the money, which is the silliest I’ve ever heard about anyone. I can never do
anything but laugh when I hear people talk about abortion for profit.

Stephanie: You
should see out apartment, it’s not for profit.

Yahel: Sometimes
it’s difficult if we’re both had a tough day and we’re both feeling frustrated.
The instinct is to try to outdo each other about who had the worst day.

Stephanie: I can
play the abortion card.

Yahel: And she
always wins. I don’t try to have the competition. Waking up before the dawn has
even cracked to show up at the clinic is a lot more difficult then what I do,
which is basically being at a desk and playing with websites. Which can be
stressful, but it’s not as emotionally – it doesn’t take as big a toll on me as
it does on her. So there are days where it’s hard.

Stephanie: We need
our patients, who we do everything for, to stand up for us. Almost half of
women in the U.S. have had one abortion; if that’s true, where are these women?
Why don’t they stand up for us? There’s obviously a lot of silence around
abortion, but if doctors are going to be killed, people who aren’t in the
movement already … I need some patients to have my back. That’s what we wanted
to do with the website – these are real people.

We have a little form that we give patients when they come
back for their follow-up to write how their experience was, how the staff was.
One of the questions is, has this changed your view on abortion; and what would
you have done about your pregnancy if abortion wasn’t legal. And most people
say, I would have tried to have an abortion anyway. That is what scares me and
wakes me up every day. This is important. And I wish we did something more with
that; I don’t know what we could do, to make people more aware that women will
do this anyway.

I hope it stays legal; otherwise, I’ll have to be doing
illegal activities. But if I have to, I have to.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.