Having grown up in Washington, D.C., I know all too well what it means when quality health care options are too few and far between. Communities such as the one I grew up in experience higher rates of chronic medical problems and decreased access to health care. These racial and ethnic disparities include disproportionately increased unintended pregnancy rates and higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. These experiences shaped me as an individual and led me toward a career in women’s health.
I am not an epidemiologist or a statistician. I am not a politician or a legislator. I am a doctor. I take care of women. It is these women that I care about — women who are forced to choose between purchasing safe and effective birth control and buying food for their families or transportation to work.
As a physician specializing in women’s health care, I work every day to keep women healthy. When you consider that half of all pregnancies in this country are unintended, abortion counseling and services is one important part of women’s health care, along with birth control, Pap tests and clinical breast exams.
But as the nation marks the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade this month, and leadership in the House of Representatives works to eliminate abortion access, the struggle to keep abortion safe, legal and accessible to women in need has resurfaced once more. Decisions made by elected officials in Congress and state legislatures across the country are effectively tying the hands of doctors and leaving our patients out in the cold. Many of these restrictions claim to protect women, but as lawmakers consider policy on women’s health, it’s critical to listen to women’s health care providers.
Lawmakers need to understand that for health care providers who provide abortion to our patients in need, the medical care we provide is just one part of the work we do. We support our patients. We trust our patients. A woman who is thinking about ending her pregnancy, or who is unsure about what to do or where to go, receives accurate and unbiased information about her options — parenting, adoption and abortion — and receives support throughout the process.
As lawmakers consider policy on women’s health, I want them to know abortion in the United States is safe — in fact, data show that abortion has a safety record of more than 99 percent.
Lawmakers also need to know abortion is safe largely because it is legal. Because it is legal, abortion is subject to rigorous research, constantly evolving best practices and is part of a regular medical practice for many women’s health care providers.
Women experience major complications less than 1 percent of the time and in those rare cases when complications do occur, they are similar to those that may occur from a miscarriage, which health care professionals treat every day. Because it is legal, after an abortion, our patients can reach a medical professional 24 hours a day, seven days a week to answer questions — and she can be open and honest with us in those conversations. Support without fear, without judgment.
One in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime. For many people, that statistic is surprising. Whether it’s the 22-year-old college student who was sexually assaulted while out on a date with a friend and came to me for help, or the mother of three whose desired pregnancy had gone wrong, my professional experience shows me every day pregnancy is deeply personal, and abortion is a private decision a woman must make for herself and her family. Those decisions need to be respected.
While their stories and their circumstances are different, all of the women making decisions about pregnancy deserve to be treated with compassion and dignity. These women don’t need judgment, condemnation or shame. We all need lawmakers to stay out of my exam room.
Jamila Perritt, M.D., M.P.H., FACOG, is a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C.