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What If There Are No Doctors? A Different Perspective on Kavanaugh and the Possible Loss of Legal Abortion

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By Lois V. Backus, Executive Director of MSFC

On Saturday, the US Supreme Court gained a clear majority of members prepared to overturn nearly 50 years of legal abortion in the US. No matter how you may feel about the new Justice himself, the balance of the Court will negatively affect reproductive justice for years to come. The impacts of future Supreme Court decisions will be broad, and one of those impacts will be fewer doctors able to perform abortions.

Our colleagues at the Center for Reproductive Rights predict that 22 states will lose legal abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned or gutted. Unfortunately, 80 medical schools are in those 22 states. So what will it mean when all the doctors graduating from all those medical schools have no medical knowledge or skills related to abortion?

Unless we start working now to nurture medical professionals trained and willing to provide safe abortions, regardless of whether abortion is legal in their states, the loss of a qualified medical workforce will greatly worsen the loss of legal abortion for those who seek it. It will also exacerbate the consequences for those that, in desperation, seek unsafe abortions.

Prior to the Court’s legalizing abortion in 1973, some doctors provided safe abortions to patients despite the possible legal consequences because they were compelled by their conscience and compassion for those they served. The unfortunate experiences they had caring for hundreds of thousands of women in hospitals suffering from unsafe abortions gave them the skills they needed to safely provide this care. Today, the loss of education and training that would result from overturning Roe would leave large areas of the US, within just a few years, with few doctors trained to provide…and those doctors will be aging.

I was in high school when the Court legalized abortion in the US. The Roe decision didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. It came after years of dedicated effort to change the way abortion was viewed by the American public, an effort that led to the liberalization of abortion laws in 17 states prior to the Court’s decision. Today, we are facing another long period of effort focused on preventing access to abortion from sliding back too far and then pushing the pendulum back toward a saner, safer view of abortion access.

Physicians, and all medical professionals, will be critical to that effort because they will be on the front lines in the fight to maintain access to safe abortion, and where that is no longer possible, to save the lives of those suffering from unsafe abortion. Medical Students for Choice is at the center of the effort to ensure that medical students have an opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge, and to nurture the courage needed to facilitate care for the most vulnerable.

MSFC is uniquely positioned to do this with chapters at 158 medical schools in the US. MSFC members are active in every region and almost every state including Alaska and Hawaii. More than half (85) of MSFC’s US chapters are in politically conservative states. These are states, such as Texas and South Dakota, with legislatures determined to limit access to abortion and eager to eliminate access to abortion entirely if Roe’s protections are taken away. Having directly experienced the many impacts on access coming out of their states’ legislatures over these past years, our members are well aware that Roe’s protections cannot be taken for granted. Helping their patients get to clinics that may be hundreds of miles away has become commonplace for many of our members in these states.

Abortion knowledge and skills are essential for doctors because they are the same skills they will need to help those suffering from unsafe abortion. The devastating injuries and deaths resulting from unsafe abortion happen everywhere, worldwide, in places without access to safe, legal abortion. Without physicians with the knowledge or skills in abortion, women will unnecessarily die or suffer long-term injuries. That’s a fact.

MSFC is not sitting by and waiting to respond to those horrifying outcomes. We are preparing every chapter in those 22 states to fill the educational needs for their fellow students and supporting our chapters’ involvement in both institutional and state-wide advocacy campaigns. We have a plan and we have already begun to implement it.

As difficult as these times are for all of us who care so deeply about equity and social justice, working with young people who are passionate about these issues is a real privilege. I know that thousands of MSFC members will help push the pendulum of change back toward care and compassion. And although many MSFC chapters will be directly affected by any US Supreme Court changes to legal abortion, many are also in states where abortion is expected to remain legal. As a community, we will pull together to ensure that interested students from poor access states will be able to seek education and training elsewhere. Our hundreds of abortion-providing alumni are already stepping up to support students in states like Arizona that prohibit abortion education in their state schools.

Hope, persistence, and a vision of what we want our world to be like will carry us through these challenging times. We can only hope that reason will prevail in our courts and legislatures, but with a relatively young majority on the Court that opposes the Roe decision, we have many years of hard work ahead of us. MSFC already has changed, fundamentally, the way that the medical profession views abortion and family planning. As we move forward from here, I know that regressive values cannot stand long against the hundreds of MSFC members graduating from medical schools each year.