Who wants to be an abortion doctor?

Low pay, long hours, death threats -- but someone's got to do it.

Published March 10, 2009 4:11PM (EDT)

Hey, all you socially concerned, medically educated young women out there. Anyone want a job in a conservative, rural state where you will get paid roughly half your usual salary, while dodging daily picketers and death threats? Any takers?

"It's been my dream job," says Anne Baker, whose job as an abortion counselor at the Hope Center for Women in Granite City, Illinois meets all of the above criteria. "I was so convinced that to stay independent, women needed abortion for backup. It was like a calling to me."

It's a calling that seems to be heard by fewer and fewer young ears, according to an article in the New York Times that claims the first generation of abortion providers -- doctors, nurses, social workers and administrators -- are having a difficult time replacing themselves with younger workers as they near retirement. "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," says Sally Burgess, executive director for the Hope Clinic and chairwoman for the National Abortion Federation. "What I observe for women in their 20s and 30s -- there are fewer who really have the fire in the belly for this."

A survey of 273 abortion clinics published in the journal Contraception found that 64 percent of the doctors were at least 50 years old and 62 percent were men. "Many women prefer females and it's particularly important if there's been abuse," says Tina Welsh, 67, founder of the Women's Health Center. Most of her staff came of age in the pre-Roe vs. Wade era and she has been trying to hire a young female doctor for more than eight years. But she couldn't even find a younger woman to replace herself as director -- after looking for two years, she finally hired her associate director, now in her 50s. Welsh's own retirement party was picketed.

Part of the problem is money: Welsh says that workers at abortion clinics can expect to make roughly half what one would make in private practice or at a hospital. (As director, she made less than $60,000 per year). But accepting a lower salary goes along with the larger mission of the work: keeping abortion affordable. "People running these clinics have brains wired for social work and social justice, even though they're in the medical business," says Ruth Arick, an abortion care consultant.

Then there is the very real danger of getting harassed, stalked or shot at on or off the job. "You work in abortion," says Burgess, "it will affect who you date, the parties you will be invited to." The Hope Clinic was firebombed in 1982 and the owner and his wife were kidnapped for a week. The new clinic is "tastefully decorated" -- and "designed like a fortress," with walls three cinder blocks thick, bullet-resistant windows and an armed guard at the entrance.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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