It’s a mantra you’ve heard repeated time and time again: decisions regarding reproductive health should be kept between a woman and her doctor. Sometimes we throw faith or God in there for good measure, lest anyone forget that we’re not Satan-worshipping baby-sacrificers. If we were being really diligent we’d make sure to remove that gender-specific language as well. “A person and their doctor.” But what if we can do even better than that?
Over the years the pro-choice movement has made a lot of concessions in order to appear as family-friendly and uncontroversial as possible. The term pro-choice itself is a reaction to the other side labeling itself pro-life, as if we’re somehow pro-death. Abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” except it shouldn’t. It should be safe, legal, and accessible. Safe, legal, and affordable. Safe, legal, and as common as needed. While I don’t completely agree with those who insist abortion has absolutely no moral implication, I don’t believe that it’s inherently a tragedy either. Yet so much of the dialogue is underscored with apology. We say that no one really wants to have an abortion, it’s what they need. We say that it’s one of the most difficult decisions someone will ever have to make, when we know that isn’t always true. It’s an “unfortunate situation” to end up in, yet the most common feeling people report immediately post-abortion is relief. We are not sorry, and we have nothing to apologize for in the first place.
The “woman and her doctor” line seems to go unexamined, however. It sounds logical, right? Doctors are people we trust to be knowledgeable, definitely more so than ourselves when it comes to such things, and we trust that they have our best interests in mind. We defer to their judgement and take their advice. But too often we do so blindly. Doctors are just as human as we are and they make mistakes. While I’m not going to name any names, I know someone who works for a very large and very reputable hospital that actually has a board for “___ Days Since Last Foreign Object Retained” in surgery. It’s never gone above 40, at best. A girl I knew had to have her chest cracked open twice in one day when it wasn’t realized until after her heart transplant was complete that they forgot to take out part of her pacemaker. Even my own mother was hospitalized twice before the drug interaction that was causing her symptoms was ever identified and corrected.
This is to say nothing of western medicine’s long and storied history of a “sure, why not?” approach to curative therapies (trepanning, anyone?), with the female condition getting pathologized in particular. From being rendered unconscious by “twilight sleep” and shackled during childbirth to the complete fabrication of Hysteria (though we do have this to thank for vibrators, so it’s not all bad), there’s centuries worth of good reason for women to be a little skeptical of medicine and those who practice it.
We’ve long known that women are woefully underrepresented in clinical studies, when we’re included at all, but progress on the issue has been slow. We’re well aware that heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women, and that women present different symptoms of heart attack, yet we’re still twice as likely to die from cardiac arrest as men are. Studies have shown that women seek out medical care more frequently on the whole, yet we’re more likely to ignore symptoms and delay treatment out of the (all too legitimate) fear of having our complaints dismissed. Women’s pain has also been routinely regarded as exaggerated or imagined. Sexism is alive and well in the exam room, and I’ve experienced the condescension firsthand.
When I was in my early twenties I began occasionally fainting. It seems fairly obvious that that isn’t supposed to happen and something must be wrong, but when you’re a woman of that age and essentially tell your physician, “Sometimes I pass out when I’ve been drinking,” they tend to not take you very seriously. Once I appeared to have a seizure I was referred to a neurologist, who referred me to a cardiologist. He put me through a barrage of tests but only at my insistence. He never seemed to even try to hide his skepticism and I got the distinct impression I was seen as nothing but a nuisance. I’m sure he would have diagnosed me with hypochondria if he could have. But I was absolutely certain something wasn’t right. You just know it in your bones.
Once it was determined that it wasn’t epilepsy, or low-blood pressure, or any number of more obvious explanations, the cardiologist literally threw up his hands at me and said, “Some people are just fainters. Be careful.” It would be two more years before I was finally diagnosed with a rare lung disease. People with the condition who go undiagnosed and untreated usually die within three years. I had been symptomatic for at least five. Only once I came back with specific requests for testing that I learned they could, and arguably should, have done did I start to get anywhere. An early morning ambulance ride to the ER when I thought I was having a heart attack finally solidified my credibility.
So forgive me if I bristle a bit when I hear that “woman and her doctor” line. Our reproductive options and health have long been controlled by (mostly male) doctors. While forced sterilization is hopefully a thing of the past, we still have “conscience clause” laws on the books in several states that put us at the mercy of a doctor or pharmacist’s personal moral beliefs. It’s completely legal to be denied an abortion because someone decides your life isn’t threatened enough to warrant one. Doctors are people that we should only be consulting with regards to our health, not required to take orders from. It’s imperative that we self-advocate and start pushing back, asking questions, and making outright demands when necessary.
It’s unfair to put the onus only on patients, though. The inherent power dynamic in the doctor-patient relationship is difficult to overcome, particularly when you’ve been socialized from a very young age to be deferential and trust everyone’s opinion but your own. There’s a myriad of problems systemic to the American health care system that continue to disenfranchise people and limit our ability to make proactive decisions about our health and lives.
So, no. Abortion is not a decision that should be left to “a woman and her doctor.” It’s a decision that should be left to a woman, full stop. Degree or not, outside opinions are by invitation-only.
Angela Hershberger is a “writer” living in Saint Paul. She spends her days pushing paper for The Man and her nights throwing balls for the dog. In between catching up on TV and naps, she volunteers to care for injured wildlife and promote healthy sex lives for all. If you would like to pay her for either of those things, that would be swell. Her ultimate goal in life is to be made into an action figure and/or cartoon. She likes swears and is sorry for what she said when she was hungry.