My Journey in Reproductive Care Advocacy

 “With a vote of 34 yeas, 20 nays, and three present, Senate Bill 25 Passes.” Access to safe and legal abortion would remain a protected right in Illinois, even as women’s health care rights continue to crumble all around us in other states. SB 25, specifically House Amendment 1, established the Reproductive Health Act. 

Cue my hysterical happy tears at 11:20 pm on Friday, May 31, sitting alone in a hotel room in Kansas City during the Spring Cluster meeting for the AAFP Commission on Education. I was watching all the Illinois General Assembly action live online, as I could not possibly miss witnessing how this story would end, considering I was among the cast of characters.

My story as a “reproductive justice warrior” started my first year of medical school in 2004. Due to a friend’s circumstances, I learned that not all Planned Parenthood clinics perform abortions. But wait, isn’t that ALL that they do? I quickly learned how much care they truly provide, and how little of our country actually has access to the full spectrum of reproductive health care.

Growing up in Chicago, I was completely unaware that the rest of the country had significantly less access to services that were abundant in the big city and suburbs. With two upperclassmen, I helped found SIU’s Medical School chapter of Medical Students for Choice and we started advocacy and education about reproductive health care on campus. While we had support, we also were on the receiving end of a lot of negativity. But we never gave up.

My first advocacy trip to Washington, DC was just days after graduating medical school. I was asked to represent the medical student organizations and speak to legislators on reproductive health care bills being considered at that time. I definitely did not feel qualified and I imagined Capitol Hill was exactly like what I had seen on C-SPAN. Turned out I was extremely qualified to talk about medicine and patient care. And my DC experience wasn’t C-SPAN. I had valuable discussions with legislators and staff discussing reproductive health care and why it is essential to proactively protect women’s health care access, and not always be on the defensive. Since that trip, I have been to DC several times and also to the Illinois state capitol for similar advocacy work on many other health care topics.

But this time I took it a step further. On Sunday, May 26th, representing Planned Parenthood, I testified before the House Appropriations Committee on Senate Bill 25--specifically on the amendment containing the Reproductive Health Act. I had never done this before. I was nervous and intimidated; but I kept reminding myself that I was the physician in the room, I was the expert and they were looking to me for my expertise. I was prepared. I delivered my testimony, and was cut off at an arbitrary time limit because so many people had submitted witness slips and it was already 7:30 pm.

The most important points I wanted to convey to our lawmakers was this wasn’t simply an “abortion bill” but an act of women’s health care access. In my testimony, I stressed that the Reproductive Health Act establishes the fundamental right to a full range of reproductive health care, including the right to use or refuse to use birth control, the right to continue a pregnancy, the right to parent or not to parent, the right to adopt, and the right to have an abortion. Each of these options must be available and accessible so that every patient can make their own reproductive health care decisions in consultation with their health care provider.

Only two other people that had submitted witness slips to testify were actually there. The hearing was two and a half hours long because of all the discussion among the legislators themselves. Very few questions were directed at me, and most were respectful, but some were rather insulting. No matter how many times my name was stated for the record, it seemed some people couldn’t remember my name or didn’t call me “doctor.” This was an emotional issue, with clear lines drawn in the sand.

Had I been allowed to deliver my full prepared testimony, most of the questions asked of me would have been answered. One legislator later stated on the House floor during debate that physicians are so unethical that we would perform abortions at any gestational age for any reason just for financial purposes. These types of false claims fuel the fires, with no evidence to squash those false statements. Fortunately, other legislators were respectful and jumped to our defense, using the medical knowledge I provided, to refute the false and inflammatory comments.

As stressful as my experience testifying in committee was on this particular issue, it has strengthened my belief in the value of participating in the process. I put myself out there, and took both praise and criticism from elected officials. In the end, I cried happy tears knowing that a bill I believe in so strongly will be law of the land in Illinois.

This, along with all of my advocacy experiences as a doctor and Academy member and leader, have helped to make me a better physician for my patients. I see how we must work to improve the world we practice in and improve the lives of patients in every way. I will never stop being a reproductive justice warrior nor will I stop advocating for health care issues at all levels. Those of us in family medicine who provide care for women of all ages want to ensure that they have every option to discuss with us, and every opportunity to care for themselves and decide for themselves.

This issue will continue to burn in states across the nation. Our Illinois Reproductive Health MIG and AAFP’s Reproductive Health MIG give unity, organization and voice to those of us who promote evidence-based reproductive health care in family medicine.

This week, on June 12, Gov. JB Pritzker signed the bill into law. I couldn't be there in person, because it was held in Chicago and I’m in Springfield. I was able to watch live from my clinic. Yes, I enjoyed another round of happy tears as it became official. I wish I could have recorded all of the amazing words everyone spoke so that I could listen to them over and over again whenever I get discouraged about the continued fight nationwide. Illinois has sent a very clear message that a woman, not politicians, should make her own health care decisions. We need to continue this fight and urge other states to #belikeIllinois by enacting similar laws to protect health care without government interference. In Illinois, we trust women.


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