In their latest attempt to restrict access to abortion care, Republicans in the U.S. Congress have passed an amendment that would prevent medical students and residents from learning how to safely perform basic medical procedures used to perform abortions, address miscarriages, or treat women suffering from other gynecological problems. As someone who required surgery after a miscarriage, I find this measure particularly offensive.
On April 16, 2010, my husband and I found out we were expecting our first child. Overjoyed, we started to navigate the overwhelming process of having a baby as upper-middle class Americans. (Any new-ish parent knows this starts long before you get to decisions about feeding.) We ate “brain-building” foods. We put an unreasonable amount of thought into finding the right nursery paint, ultimately choosing a gender-neutral, VOC-free, soothing gray with a yellow ceiling. We talked about naming the baby – boy or girl – after my late father.
My pregnancy was relatively easy. I had the nausea, but not the morning sickness. I gained a little bit of weight, but it all went to my boobs. I had some on and off spotting, but an ultrasound always confirmed the baby was okay: We always saw a baby that was the right size for the gestational age. We always saw and heard a heartbeat.
We followed common wisdom not to share the pregnancy until the end of the first trimester, and waited until a Memorial Day visit to tell my husband’s family about the baby. We had plans to tell my family the next weekend. Seeing increasing spotting – this time with cramping – and feeling uneasy, I called my doctor Thursday morning.
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My doctor arranged an appointment with the lead obstetrician in the practice. He performed a physical exam, and reassured me, “Everything looks okay. We’ll do an ultrasound just in case.” I waited an hour as the non-emergency, last-minute patient squeezed into the day’s schedule. Everything was not okay. We saw a baby, but no heartbeat. My pregnancy was supposed to be twelve weeks along, but the baby was the size of a ten-week-old: It hadn’t been alive for almost two weeks. I had had a missed miscarriage – when the baby dies but stays inside the mother’s body.
My doctor recommended surgery. Since my body had not completed the miscarriage, I was at risk for infection. Even without these risks, passing a 12-week old fetus would be painful and traumatic. It could happen at any time… like at work or while I was driving. In addition, having surgery would allow my doctor to understand what had happened with my pregnancy and how to help me have a healthy pregnancy in the future.
I had a D&E, or dilation and extraction, the following Monday. A D&E is surgery to safely remove a dead fetus, along with any potentially infected tissue, from the uterus. I am still amazed and thankful for the level of compassion and competence showed by my obstetrician, his surgical team, and the hospital staff.
The pathology report that followed my surgery showed three things: A chromosomal defect meant my pregnancy was never viable, I had been dangerously close to developing an infection, and my uterus also contained unusual, abnormal cells. Round two of my medical ordeal was a cancer scare. One year later, I am healthy and happy. But I’m only healthy and happy because I had a fully trained doctor.
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When I was researching obstetricians, I noticed that nearly all of the doctors in my chosen practice had spent some time in the military. They were able to become doctors by exchanging their services as doctors for their medical and obstetric education. They were educated at the taxpayer’s expense. They learned to do my surgery at the taxpayers’ expense. The American Association of Medical Colleges notes that 85 percent of all med students in the US need financial aid, and that the federal government is the largest source of aid.
I think I would qualify as a reasonably passable future parent to the mainstream of the GOP: I’m healthy, married, old enough, educated, and financially stable. As snarky as I would like to be, I don’t believe any of them would have wanted me to die. But if my doctor had not been trained, I could have died. And women in my position could die without trained physicians.
We need our doctors to be trained to perform the full range of medical procedures. They need to know how to remove the contents of a woman’s uterus just as much as they need to know how to remove a bullet from a gunshot victim or a tumor from someone’s brain.
I don’t imagine the Republicans in Congress or in our state legislature will stop trying to legislate or regulate women’s health issues any time soon. We have seen year after year of ultrasound laws and waiting periods. In 2011, they have moved farther, faster, including restricting financial access to basic health services like contraception, pap tests, and cancer screenings. But, it’s downright dangerous to break down our medical training system in a way that will prevent the vast majority of future doctors from learning life-saving techniques that may well have nothing to do with abortion.
Elizabeth Hundley Finley is Director of Strategic Communications for the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, a nonprofit focused on promoting comprehensive sex education and access to contraceptive care. She has worked with a number of child health advocacy groups focused on issues including early care and education, child abuse, and HIV prevention. She lives in Durham, NC.