Chastine—who, in her 30s, didn’t look much older than me—delivered two talks that day, one on how to perform first-trimester abortions and one about her career choices. As she spoke to around 40 of us medical students, she was deliberate with her words. She didn’t spare us the details.
Chastine routinely received death threats, she said. Only a few months after she started working in Wichita, she permanently closed her primary-care practice in Chicago. Although she and her colleagues did not provide abortions in Illinois, anti-abortion protesters who had learned of her high-profile work in Kansas began swarming outside the Chicago office to protest.
Her job sounded hard, and it sounded scary.
Her lecture was inspiring, but it was also sobering. Several of the other medical students there and I exchanged uneasy glances, and a few whispered, “I’m not sure I could do what she does.”
One of the reasons I went to medical school was to become an abortion provider—and, coming from a strongly pro-choice family, to use my medical training to increase abortion access in the U.S. I always assumed that my ability to do so was simply a matter of my willingness to perform the procedure. But in seeking out opportunities to learn about abortion—as a medical student, and now as a resident in family medicine—I have ended up in Philadelphia, where there are widespread abortion services, and where women don’t face the same barriers to abortion as they do in Kansas. As I think about the kind of doctor I want to be, I have to reckon with whether or not I have what it takes to serve the women who need me most.
* * *
When I started medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, the culture war surrounding abortion still seemed abstract and far away. I grew up attending pro-choice rallies with my physician mom in Washington, D.C., and all my parents’ doctor friends supported abortion rights.
My medical education seemed to confirm my false sense that everyone working in healthcare felt the way I did about abortion access: Abortion was discussed in class as openly as blood pressure and diabetes, and spending a day in family-planning clinic was an opt-out, not opt-in, part of our clinical education. Many of my professors who work in family medicine routinely perform abortions for their patients, so when I started to think more seriously about a career in primary care, I assumed that making abortion part of my practice would be an easy decision.
Then, during my third year of medical school, I attended that pro-choice conference where I met Chastine—and I also met students from schools very different than mine. One woman attending medical school in the Midwest told me she had lied to her friends about where she was that weekend. There was a man from the South who said his anti-abortion classmates celebrated when his obstetrician-gynecologist father—one of his town’s only abortion providers—unexpectedly passed away. A student from another East Coast medical school just a few hours away from mine described how one of his classmates had been written up for “professionalism concerns” for referring a patient to Planned Parenthood.