Heather Irobunda has watched with a bit of disbelief as Americans react to the horror stories of pregnant people being denied abortions after the fall of Roe v. Wade. The people denying the abortions are doctors who could face criminal charges under state bans, and some commenters online are convinced that the physicians—or their employers—are just interpreting the laws incorrectly. These laws have exceptions for threats to people’s health, they say.
“I understand that from a very black-and-white version of looking at these scenarios, you say, ‘Hey, the law is not supposed to limit things that we consider medically indicated,’” Irobunda, an OB/GYN who provides full-spectrum reproductive care in New York City, told Jezebel. But medical complications often exist in gray areas, and now many doctors have lawyers breathing down their necks.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe, near-total abortion bans have taken effect in 14 states, and many of these bans make providing an abortion a crime. Irobunda has seen others online suggest that, if the laws do really limit doctors’ ability to provide abortions in medical emergencies, they should defy them. “If I or one of my colleagues get arrested and put in jail, that’s one less person who can provide not only abortion care, but the full spectrum of reproductive health care,” said Irobunda, the co-founder of Obstetricians for Reproductive Justice. “We can’t just all get thrown into jail.”
Beyond being able to care for their patients, doctors have their own private lives. “People have to understand that we are also humans—we’re also people who have families, that have others that rely on us for their well being,” she said.
Highlighting the community-wide harms of criminalizing abortion providers is the basis for a new campaign called Doctors for Abortion Access. The collective is leading a national day of action on November 3, when medical workers will protest in Washington, DC, their own hometowns, and on social media.
They will highlight the dangers of Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) proposed nationwide abortion ban and ask politicians to untie their hands. Specifically, they will urge Congress to restore providers’ ability to provide care by codifying the protections of Roe into federal law via the Women’s Health Protection Act. In short: “Leave the medicine to those of us who trained for that,” Irobunda said.
They’re asking more doctors, abortion providers, and medical students to sign up to join the action.
Irobunda’s group, Obstetricians for Reproductive Justice, is one of the participating organizations. She noted that while doctors aren’t typically involved in activism, the Trump administration and the end of abortion rights—first with the Texas bounty-hunter law, then the overturning of Roe—have changed that. “Especially within the last year, I’ve realized that we can no longer sit on the sidelines and wait for other people to go out there and do the activism that we need to be doing.”
She said she’s looking forward to advocating for her patients in the streets. “People are just used to us being in exam rooms and in delivery rooms and operating rooms supporting our patients, but we are excited to be out in public supporting the rights of our patients,” Irobunda said.
Some abortion providers will stay in banned states—by choice or necessity—and practice under immense restrictions, while others will leave for states where they can offer the medical care their patients need. The doctor who sent a Tennessee woman on a six-hour ambulance ride to get a medically necessary abortion in North Carolina relocated to Colorado, and Irobunda knows colleagues in Florida, Georgia, and Texas who are considering leaving.
Every provider who leaves means one fewer person to treat people who need prenatal care, gynecologic surgery, and more. Irobunda notes that the states passing abortion bans are also the ones most likely to have subpar access to reproductive healthcare and higher rates of maternal mortality. And the doctors who remain will likely see more patients who face forced pregnancies, and the related health risks, imposed by lawmakers.
And medical students who remain will lack the appropriate abortion training to care for their patients in all possible situations. Danielle Mathisen was already planning to leave her home state of Texas for residency because she wanted to be a fully trained OB/GYN—then she was denied an abortion in September 2021 due to SB 8. Mathisen learned at her 20-week anatomy scan that her baby’s brain didn’t develop and she had to call several out-of-state abortion clinics before getting an appointment, and that was when only one state had a ban in effect, versus the 14 states currently.
Mathisen told Jezebel that her friends who remained in Texas for their residencies are extremely frustrated because they’re not learning the standard of care and because they can see how their patients are being harmed. “Providers are having to wait until their patients are sick enough to be able to perform medically indicated abortions,” she said.
Pregnancy “is not a health-neutral event,” she added. “Abortion is healthcare and the decision should rest solely between the patient and the provider. And right now, other people are making those decisions.”
It’s easy for people on the internet to suggest that doctors simply defy state bans that have criminal penalties. While the cost of Mathisen’s schooling was covered by the military, most of her friends have huge amounts of student debt. “My friends have hundreds of hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical school debt—not including undergrad debt,” she said.
It’s kind of hard to pay that off once you find yourself in jail.