Mike Wren/New York State Department of Health
Today, abortion is a difficult issue. But when I needed an abortion as a medical student in 1979, it was not a difficult decision for me.
I was at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, preparing to enter what was sure to be a grueling internship in internal medicine at Harlem Hospital. Up and through this point, I had spent my entire young adult life—eight years of schooling and countless hours working, studying, and testing—readying to be a doctor, not a parent. I was almost there.
I was surprised to learn I was pregnant, because my partner and I used contraception. But I was not shocked. I knew that no contraception is completely foolproof. Back then, I was more educated than most. Sex education—including contraception and abortion options—were not topics regularly broached by primary care doctors, even for those whose patients were like me: female, sexually active, and at the prime age for someone who sought reproductive health care as a primary health need.
My own decision-making process was swift. How could a first-year intern who was expected to work 36-hour shifts also carry and care for a child? She—I—could not. I turned to the same institution that had provided me, and generations before me, with safe contraception: a Planned Parenthood center in New York. Only this time, I needed a safe, legal, and affordable abortion. I have barely looked back since.
Now, as both New York State’s Health Commissioner and a committed mother of two adult daughters, I—like so many others—await the U.S. Supreme Court’s painful, pending reversal of Roe, a roll-back of nearly 50 years of constitutionally-protected abortion rights, with disgust and disappointment. It is a reality so difficult and so dystopian that it is hard to fathom that, once again, our country is here.
Like every other person who receives an abortion, my story did not end after my procedure. Because abortion is not a single choice. Rather, it is one tangled with many: the right to learn, the right to work, the right to mental health, and the right to start a family when one is physically or financially able, when one chooses. Had it not been for the abortion I received before I began my internship, I would not be New York’s Health Commissioner today. More importantly, I would not be the committed mother that I have been able to be to my two adult daughters for over 34 years. These two wonderful women might not even be here. My career and my children are a product of my own hard work and choices, underpinned by a society and health care system that once understood the necessity of an individual’s right to choose their own destiny.
Now is the moment to actively reaffirm the core value that all people must have agency over their own bodies—a medical freedom and human right. Taking the right to abortion away will not stop abortions—it never has—but it will make these procedures more desperate, deadly, and dangerous. For those who will be unable to surpass new barriers—communities of color or those who are poorer, with fewer resources and less time—the consequences will be gravest. Already seismic inequities will deepen, crushing those who need more access to health care, not less.
It is a time to be loud, and it is a time to act. Recently, Governor Kathy Hochul announced $35 million dollars in funding to support abortion providers and expand capacity, anticipating even more will come to New York seeking abortion care. We also took steps to codify state law against clinical standards and reviewed public health governing bodies, actions that ensure all people’s health is based on medical expertise and never politics. As in 1970, three years before Roe became law, New York State will once again be an example to the nation, providing and protecting safe abortion access to all who need it.
Yet this is about more than what one state has done and will do. If access to reproductive health care is to be protected, it will be held by the strength of state policy, the promise of public health, and the will of the people. Everyone that respects the rights of women, and all people, must therefore work in concert to preserve and support these rights. For those of us in public health, we must consider ways to increase the availability of oral abortion medication and expand the number of providers who can work across states, not just within. We must continue to break down barriers for those who continue to need more education, resources, and support to access safe abortions. And we must demonstrate the sweeping individual, societal, and economic success that follows safe abortion access as a fundamental component of health care, for all.
My abortion story, as part of my life story, is about me: the whole person, the professional, and the mother that my abortion enabled me to be. In the same light, abortion is a health issue that impacts the whole of our population, irrespective of the individual choices one may make.
Every woman, every girl, and every human being must intrinsically know that their health, their choices, and their life—as they choose to live it—holds inordinate value to all.
Until then, there is work to do. For my children and yours.
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