Isabella Taylor, OMS II Class of 2019
President of the Reproductive Health Club ’16-’17
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, an Osteopathic medical school, lies in the heart of central Washington State, a region that historically votes red. A large portion of the students, faculty, and staff are politically conservative, which tends to influence our curriculum and the stance our school takes on social issues. Luckily, we have a few students who are committed to reproductive health advocacy and education. Our Reproductive Health Club, PNWU’s MSFC chapter, hosts lunch time talks about state legislation on abortion and on the actual procedure itself including medical versus surgical abortion. We also visit local high schools to teach comprehensive sexual education, including abortion. A couple of months ago, PNWU MSFC hosted our annual abortion dinner panel. This year, however, we decided to invite two pro-life physicians, in addition to an OB/GYN abortion provider, and the pro-choice Reverend Mike Scheid.
In the past, PNWU MSFC has only invited panelists that tend towards the pro-choice side: a local OB/GYN, a medical assistant and social worker at Planned Parenthood, non-profit employees who connect women to abortion services, and even a pro-choice ELCA Lutheran pastor. This year we wanted to do something different. These events can often amount to ‘preaching to the choir,’ so we wanted to expand our audience to include students who shy away from the topic of abortion access. Our club realized that to convey our pro-choice message to a broader audience, we had to present the issue from multiple sides. In keeping with our goal of broader inclusion, our panel included two pro-life physicians, one of whom our club works with to teach high school sexual education. Though reluctant at first, he and his co-worker agreed to serve on the panel. Hearing from the pro-life physicians actually strengthened our passion for abortion access and education even more.
Our club was delighted to see more conservative and religious students join us for this year’s panel. We asked the panelists speak about their careers and the origins of their views on abortion. While one of the pro-life physicians condemned the act of providing abortions, the OB/GYN abortion provider on the panel adamantly disagreed, strongly defending the importance of his job and access to safe, legal abortion for all patients.
PNWU students pressed the pro-life physicians on their refusal to give referrals to locations that offer abortion services, and asked them where they drew the line with regards to patient safety. The pro-life physicians had the audacity to claim that if a woman truly wanted an abortion, plenty of information is available on where to go. I was shocked. How could a physician living in rural Washington for over 20 years assume everyone had access to abortion services? Students pressed harder. Did they consider the time women had to take off work to go to counseling centers or clinics, the money women spend on child care while at appointments, or the time spent waiting for inadequate public transportation? The two pro-life physicians couldn’t answer our questions.
Having the pro-life physicians there made students practice the future debates they may have in confronting anti-choice proponents. The argument was raised by pro-life students in attendance that a fertilized egg has the potential for life, and that is reason to salvage it. The abortion provider on the panel countered, asserting strongly, “You cannot consider an embryo the start of life because life is continuous. At any moment, I have millions of sperm inside me who have the ‘capacity for life’. They have intention, movement, and purpose, but you do not see me trying to salvage every one of them.” This ethical questioning is very important for medical students to consider. The more clearly we can define our reasons for providing abortion services, the greater our capacity to educate our peers and patients.
One key take away for the whole group was that Planned Parenthood, while providing access to abortion services, also provides objective options counseling to patients wanting to know about parenting, adoption, and abortion. As an essential component of patient care, all medical professionals should be trained in giving basic options counseling. The pro-life physicians admitted they weren’t aware that unbiased options counseling is offered at Planned Parenthood. They were invited to shadow Planned Parenthood counseling services.
It is incredibly difficult to change someone’s mind about abortion, but that doesn’t mean we will stop holding this annual event to promote education across a strongly divided community. MSFC at PNWU strongly believes in the duty to educate peers, faculty, and community on all reproductive health options, including the excellent safety record of abortion procedures. It was clear that many walked away from this event with valuable new perspective, which I would say means we are moving in the right direction.