In the timely documentary on HBO Max called “The Janes,” a former member of a clandestine Chicago network of women that helped provide safe, inexpensive and illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade recalls “There was a philosophical need to disrespect a law that would disrespect women.”
I watched the film in my Chicago neighborhood park recently, surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, and many of the original Janes. I am an abortion provider in Illinois and participated in this event to raise awareness about the state of abortion care in Illinois and nationwide. I felt energized and grateful to be in a place where abortion remains legal post-Roe.
But grim reality quickly set in. On Sept. 13, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced a bill that would ban abortions nationwide starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. And Indiana has now joined other states that surround Illinois to make abortion illegal in most circumstances. Every state that borders ours now has some form of abortion ban.
These restrictions are not new. Since 1973, more than 1,300 abortion restrictions have been passed. However, the laws are becoming more punitive and blatantly disregard the known consequences of making abortion illegal: that people will be harmed, especially in marginalized communities.
From my perspective as a provider on the “front lines” of this public health crisis, I am already seeing the profound impact of the Dobbs decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe and eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion.
Our medical systems are being overwhelmed, especially in states that continue to protect abortion access. In Illinois, we expect to see an additional 20,000 to 30,000 extra patients travel to our state for abortion care in the next year.
Independent clinics, hospitals and organizations are working tirelessly to provide care for these patients, but our infrastructure is not set up for this acute surge. We need space, staff, providers, social work and grassroots organizing.
All of this takes time and is in progress, but pregnancies don’t wait. In the meantime, people continue to suffer.
In our free-standing clinics, we now routinely see patients who are traveling hundreds or thousands of miles for a 3-minute procedure or for dispensing of pills for a medication abortion — care that could have been given by the highly skilled and compassionate providers in their home states.
In our hospitals, we are caring for some of the sickest and most vulnerable patients, who have been forced to travel to a strange city, many times alone for multiple days with little to no support. No one should have to travel for this care, and this patchwork system is not sustainable.
My friends and colleagues in states where abortion is now illegal are being forced to make an impossible choice: to move away from their family and the communities they serve or to comply with laws that they know will hurt their patients and are not science-based. Imagine telling a patient, “I have the knowledge and skills to help you, but my hands are tied and I risk my license by providing you safe, effective and life-saving abortion care.”
This decision will cause medical education and training to suffer. Abortion education is already limited in medical school, residency and other health education training, and the lack of consistent, quality abortion training and education will compound the abortion provider shortage that already exists.
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As a physician who has been on the front lines of both COVID and now the abortion public health crisis, the truth is, I feel broken. The burnout is not just from the Dobbs decision, but from years of screaming to our leaders that this moment was coming. It’s from years of frustration that Roe really never meant equal access for all. It’s from the burden and trauma our patients carry that weigh heavily on our hearts and minds. It’s from the stigma we feel from within our own medical field for providing this care. It’s from fearing for our lives or our family’s safety, just for doing our job.
Despite the exhaustion, anger and burnout, there are glimmers of hope. As I looked around the crowd at the “Janes” event, the energy was palpable. I saw tears of fear and of hope, and heard the urgency in people’s voices.
Although we are protected in Illinois now, we cannot take anything for granted. Like the fearless Janes, we cannot let unjust and discriminatory laws stop us from doing our jobs and caring for one another.
My evening ended with a warm embrace from a former Jane — and it was just what I needed to keep going.
Erica Hinz, MD, is an OB/GYN and abortion provider at Planned Parenthood of Illinois. She is director of both the Fellowship in Complex Family Planning and the Ryan Residency Training Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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September 19, 2022 at 06:11PM