A few weeks ago during the Seattle International Film Festival I had the absolute honor of seeing a film featuring some well-loved abortion docs that I know and deeply admire. Directed by Jan Haaken, the film follows four doctors in three different cities through their lives and work as parents, community members, partners, and abortion providers. Some of the doctors are OB/GYNs or family medicine physicians who travel to rural areas or cities across the South and Southwest. Some, like the physicians based in Seattle, do abortion work as their main day to day job and teach others to become abortion providers.
As the film unfolded, I saw an instrument prominently featured that I am learning to use for miscarriage management, and hopefully someday soon, for terminations: the MVA, or manual vacuum aspirator. It’s incredibly low tech and functions through a self-created vacuum. It essentially looks like a bulbous cylinder with a straw on the end.
Not only did the film feature this beautifully simple device, but it actually showed women having abortions. As someone who has seen hundreds of abortions performed I was struck at how much of my normal life was being seen by most people in the audience for the first time. Two of the docs, Sarah Prager and Deb Oyer, our two hometown heroes, talked about how small and relatively isolated the abortion provider world is. As I excitedly leaned over to my partner to tell them that the MVAs they were using in the procedure rooms were what I am learning to use I felt so strongly like my world was being seen and understood by a much broader layer of people.
The deep empathy and compassion that the abortion providers, nurses and clinic staff showcased the world that I found my bearing in as a new midwife. There are lots of reassuring touches, hugs, and warmth. It transported me back to my first few weeks as a new grad midwife at Planned Parenthood. I was working out in a small clinic in Bremerton and did a now-seemingly insane combination of a bike/hour long ferry/bike commute to the clinic in whatever weather the Northwest winter would through at me.
I shadowed our medical director, Laurel, while she performed abortions. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but abortion care certainly didn’t look like what I thought it would. Laurel was confident, soft-spoken, sure, carefully and effortlessly moving back and forth between chatting about kids’ soccer schedules and what time the patient had to be at work the next day to letting her know what she might feel next.
Laurel didn’t shy away from being fully present with the folks who were struggling, always calmly and empathetically listening and nodding. I saw her ease and seriousness, occasionally mixed with little anecdotes and jokes and saw the kind of provider I hoped to someday be; the kind of provider I hope I’ve become.
The film also takes on an issue that I came far too familiar with as a midwife working at a Catholic Hospital. In Washington state, nearly half of hospital beds are in facilities with a religious affiliation, and not a small number of times I found my hands tied with what I could or couldn’t do for a patient because of the presence of a fetal heartbeat. Cienna Madrid wrote this excellent long-form piece about the creep of Catholic hospitals into Washington’s health care matrix in 2013 that’s always worth going back to.
While it was invigorating to be in a packed-out theater surrounded by friends, fellow abortion and reproductive health providers and abortion rights activists, I couldn’t ignore my nagging feeling that the film was leaving out the people who provide, numbers-wise, the majority of abortions in this country: nurse practitioners and nurse-midwives. The film was overall physician-centric, and didn’t acknowledge at all the huge role that we as advanced practice clinicians take in abortion care and advocacy.
I hate to complain too much about one of the only films in existence that showcase some true abortion heroes and advocates, especially because the Seattle-based physicians featured in the film are the ones helping me to expand my own skills so I can be a part of training other ARNPs to use manual vacuum aspirators.
It feels so fulfilling to see a film portray mostly women physicians as specialists in abortion care as the gentle, beautiful humans that I have come to know and look up to as mentors. There is a fear among older abortion providers, many of whom began providing abortion care in the years immediately after the passage of Roe v. Wade that there will be fewer and fewer providers choosing to become abortionists. This film shows dozens of eager med students involved in the national organization Med Students for Choice hanging on Sarah and Deb’s every word, and while most of them won’t become abortion providers, they’ll at least have the empathy to know who to refer to, and how to talk to their patients about their abortions.
For more information on the film, trailers, and more about the abortion docs featured in the film check out: https://ourbodiesourdoctors.com/