The next generation of abortion providers?

Bucking a trend, medical students aim to offer women full reproductive care.

Published May 23, 2007 5:38PM (EDT)

The Gonzales v. Carhart decision appears to limit abortions only to those that Dr., sorry, Justice Anthony Kennedy feels women will not regret. Since neither this ruling, nor the term "partial-birth abortion" to begin with, has anything to do with the actual practice of medicine, many actual physicians -- like my favorite New York Times letter writer/dermatologist ever -- have complained, and they're not really joking, that at this point, before performing anything but the straightest-forward, earliest-on pregnancy terminations, they'll have to check with their lawyers.

Arguably, this shameful invasion of autonomy will just be the latest in the inventory of reasons for the ongoing decline in/"graying" of abortion providers. (Also on the list: harassment, peril, death.) But the Los Angeles Times reports that for every abortion-rights setback, new medical students step up to buck the trend. "For them," the article says, "doing abortions is an act of defiance -- a way of pushing back against mounting restrictions on a right they've taken for granted all their lives."

Third-year student Lysie Cirona, 24, for example -- after yelling at the radio when she heard of the recent ruling -- switched from psychiatry to obstetrics. "'It wasn't on my radar screen' a year ago, Cirona said, but her priorities have changed as she's learned more about the history and current state of abortion rights. Cirona has taken to badgering her professors to include information about abortion in their lectures. She attended workshops on how to respond effectively to antiabortion protesters. Some days, she still wants to be a psychiatrist. Other days, she thinks of the women who drive 10 hours to reach the nearest abortion clinic. 'This is what I'm going to do,' she tells herself."

Looks like Cirona's got a lot more badgering ahead of her. "Most medical schools barely mention the subject and it's rarely included in ... residencies," says the article. "Just half the nation's obstetrics-gynecology residencies -- and only 20 out of 400 family practice residencies -- integrate abortion into physician training, according to Lois Backus, executive director of Medical Students for Choice. Most residents interested in the field must study on their own, often through after-hours electives in abortion clinics."

"They have to be enormously committed to work it in," says Backus.

Indeed, and even more so after they're trained. Fourth-year student Megan Lederer -- who, like Cirona, was born years after Roe was decided -- has also committed to performing abortions. But harrowing questions remain. "Once settled, how public does she take her abortion practice? Her instincts are to speak up, but would it be wiser to keep quiet, to protect her family?"

At a lecture organized by Medical Students for Choice, Boulder, Colo., physician Warren Hern, "a legend in the abortion rights movement," basically dares doctors-to-be to perform abortions. "You don't have it in you," he tells them. Hern's clinic has four layers of bulletproof glass; he does not open his blinds at night.

It's too soon to declare that these students are part of a movement or even a trend. But they do remind one of the very "graying" doctors they're vying to replace, many of whom themselves felt the calling when things got bad. If history repeats itself then, for worse -- and, in response, for better -- perhaps it's coming around again.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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