The XX Factor

Anti-Abortion Zealots Are Inspiring a New Generation of Abortion Providers   

A new class of abortion providers is on the way.

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Though anti-abortion zealots are in many ways winning their war on women’s healthcare, their efforts have produced at least one victory for the other side: More doctors are getting trained in the procedure.

According to a story published Monday in Reuters, two training programs that prep doctors to perform abortions—and to dispense contraception and other forms of family planning care—have seen their applications surge as abortion access has grown increasingly embattled. The revelation that young obstetric-gynecology residents—who are about 80 percent female—are lining up to acquire this skill suggests that young women are not, as some older feminists fear, “complacent” about the reproductive rights they’ve grown up with. Republicans have passed well over 200 restrictions on abortion since 2010—and, as a backlash, Lori Carpentier of Planned Parenthood in Michigan told Reuters that she is seeing “a new generation of activist doctors.” The founder of one of the training programs, Uta Landy, agreed: “The more controversy there is, the more motivation, commitment and passion grows and responds.”

Last year, one of the programs, the nonprofit Medical Students for Choice, put 137 medical students and residents through training—more than double its numbers from 2010. Reuters reports that the organization’s two- and three-day training institute “has received 321 applications so far this year, surpassing the 228 who applied in all of 2015.” The program Landy founded, the Kenneth J. Ryan Residency Training Program, is part of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, and brings family planning and abortion training into teaching hospitals around the country. Though OB-GYN residencies are technically required to offer abortion training, not all do; the Ryan Program has established or expanded the offerings at 85 hospitals, which together train about 1,000 residents a year.

While the pool of medical professionals qualified to provide abortion is growing, the procedure isn’t getting any easier to obtain in the places where targeted legislation has forced clinics to close. “I don’t think we have a provider shortage anymore,” Sarah W. Prager, a University of Washington Medical School professor, told Reuters. “What we have is a distribution problem. We have a lot of providers in some of our city centers, but in rural areas there are very few people willing or able to provide care.” Both Medical Students for Choice and the Ryan Program operate in locations across the country (the former has chapters around the world)—but the universities and teaching hospitals with which they partner are usually in urban locations where access to medical services is, relatively speaking, already high. Plus, there’s only so much that a glut of skilled doctors can do in states where laws, for example, require abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals—though, as legislators know, hospital administrators often refuse to provide them—or ban the procedure after 20 weeks, the point at which many fatal or life-altering fetal anomalies first become apparent. 

The Republican legislators behind these bills aren’t just stymying women’s self-determination; they’re also superseding doctors’ ability to do their jobs according to their own judgment and expertise. It makes sense that the assault on women’s rights has inspired a “generation of activist doctors.” But until legal and political activism can regain some lost ground, in Republican-held states, those doctors will have difficulty putting their skills to good use.