After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, predictable yet still horrifying stories about the impacts of forced pregnancies started flooding in. Some stories came from patients themselves, while many came from doctors. A physician speaking out, for instance, is the only reason the country knows about the 10-year-old rape survivor who had to leave Ohio for an abortion because of a state ban.
Now, according to a report from CNN, medical employers are trying to silence their workers on the real-life impacts of abortion bans.
Eight doctors who work at public and private medical centers in five states said their employers have either asked them not to speak publicly about abortion or instructed them that, if they do, they cannot mention where they work. The doctors told CNN that the employers have made it clear they’d prefer them not to talk about it even as private citizens. One employer made a group of medical residents take down an Instagram post that said “abortion is healthcare,” and another called a doctor into the administrator’s office after they spoke at an abortion event.
One OB/GYN in the Northeast said the New York Times approached her for a story about patients traveling from states with bans. The Times was interested in part because the doctor also serves on her state’s maternal mortality review committee. She passed the request to the hospital’s PR department, as is standard, but the hospital said no: “We ask that you do not comment to the NY Times at this time,” they replied.
The doctor told CNN: “They’re censoring me. It’s shameful and embarrassing to work for an institution that is not supportive of women’s rights.” She further called it “disgusting.”
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A doctor in another state said, “I feel shackled. I feel muzzled. I feel completely restrained, and I’m outraged.”
One Texas OB/GYN who specializes in high-risk pregnancies said the public university where she works told her she can only speak to journalists about abortion if she doesn’t mention the hospital and doesn’t use her work email or computer. She fears retaliation, even if she were to follow the rules. “I’m afraid of losing my job. I’m the primary breadwinner in my family, so losing my job would be a big, big deal,” she told CNN.
Erika Werner, MD, who is the chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts Medical Center and who chairs the health policy and advocacy committee at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, told CNN that doctors’ voices are more important than ever. “If [they] don’t speak up, who is going to provide the evidence about the effect [abortion bans are] having on patients?” Werner asked.
Kerri Wade, chief public affairs officer at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, has been fielding journalist requests on the post-Roe world, and she agreed that employers saying no is a big problem. “When people don’t hear these stories, they don’t understand the reality of what these laws are doing to real people, and I think real people are suffering. That’s what people need to understand and hear,” she said.
Large institutions are typically risk-averse, and the treatment of the Indiana doctor who talked about caring for the 10-year-old probably gives them even more pause. Conservatives smeared Dr. Caitlin Bernard, who works at Indiana University Health, as a liar, and Indiana’s Attorney General is investigating her for allegedly not following state laws about mandated reporting of crimes. (Bernard did, in fact, report the crime.)
It was Planned Parenthood that shared the story this week of the 15-year-old incest survivor who was forced to leave Florida for care. Though doctors have also spoken out in legal filings to challenge state laws, like a Louisiana patient being forced to deliver a dead fetus and pregnant Ohio women with cancer who had to leave the state for abortions, which delayed their cancer treatments.
Some patients are also choosing to share their own trauma, like the Texas woman who had to bring her own foul discharge to the hospital to get an abortion after her water broke at 18 weeks, and the Louisiana woman whose fetus didn’t have a skull and traveled 1,400 miles for an abortion.
Unless and until more medical systems support their employees’ desire to talk about the harms of abortion bans, we’ll be relying on the workers at explicitly pro-choice organizations and patients themselves to get a full picture of what’s happening on the ground.