Dr. Suzanne Poppema ran an abortion clinic near Seattle in the 1990s. She writes at RH Reality Check this week that while her job was rewarding, she often worried she was a member of an endangered species: “Like the spotted owl, our habitats were being invaded and destroyed — not by loggers but by anti-choice protestors.”
At the same time, fewer medical schools and residencies were educating students about abortion and were limiting training opportunities at outside clinics. “Many doctors continued working past retirement age so their patients wouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles to get an abortion,” adds Poppema.
Her story is familiar among abortion providers. The New York Times last week reported on the increasing age of doctors and other abortion clinic staff — many of whom came of age before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973 and who saw providing care and counsel to women as their calling. They now fear that their roles will go unfilled.
“We worry about that a lot,” said Sally Burgess, executive director of the Hope clinic and chairwoman of the National Abortion Federation, the main professional association of abortion providers. “Younger women have always had access to abortion care, they don’t fully appreciate the battle that was fought to have it available to them. And more important, I don’t think they know how precarious the option is at this point, even with Obama’s election.”
Anne Baker started counseling women in 1976 at the Hope Clinic for Women in Granite City, Ill., and never left. She estimates she has counseled 25,000 women and a few girls during that time, ranging in age from 11 to 53.
“It’s been my dream job,” she told the Times. “I wanted to be standing by the side of someone who was making a decision that others would condemn her for, and support her and link arms and say, You’re a good person making a hard decision, and that’s what I’ve done for 33 years.”
The Anne Baker’s of the world deserve major props for being on the frontline. Women’s health clinics generally pay less than other medical offices and the jobs carry a special stigma and added stress. The NYT’s Michael Winerip writes:
“People running these clinics,” Ms. Arick said, “have brains wired for social work and social justice even though they’re in the medical business.” Studies show the typical woman having an abortion is a poor, single parent in her 20s. Many don’t have insurance, or the insurance won’t cover abortion. Ms. Burgess said half who come to her clinic need financial help, and she employs a staff member to search for charitable grants.
Working at an abortion clinic intrudes into a person’s private life. “I never wanted to be political,” Ms. Welsh said, “but for the clinic to survive, I had to know all the legislators from our area. They can make or break you.”
“You work in abortion,” Ms. Burgess said, “it will affect who you will date, the parties you will be invited to.” Every day when she comes to work, she’s picketed. On the weekday I visited, 15 protestors carried signs comparing abortion to Hitler’s Holocaust.
A decade ago, after an Atlanta clinic was bombed, Ms. Welsh had to take terrorism prevention classes. “I’m a director of a nonprofit, and I’m sitting there thinking, Why am I learning about letter bombs?” she recalled. “My board decided after that, only I could open the clinic mail — I was the only one they insured, to save money on the premium.”
On July 11, 2008, protestors picketed Ms. Welsh’s retirement party.
Poppema, the doctor from Seattle, writes that the violent atmosphere of the 1990s prompted “the provider community to preserve this endangered — but highly valued — species of physicians. We formed new organizations, like Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health and Medical Students for Choice, that were dedicated to training the next generation of providers and reducing the stigma around abortion.”
And in 1996, March 10 was declared a National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers.
This week, take a moment to follow through on Poppema’s suggestions to save the endangered abortion provider:
If you know a doctor who provides abortions, thank 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.
Backline is the distributor for the documentary film “Abortion Diaries.” If like me you hae an interest in how popular culture represents women who are pregnant and considering abortion (or who have abortions), check out this timeline of U.S. and Canadian TV shows and popular movies at the “Abortion Diaries” website.