Speaking Out Where It Matters
Dr. Elizabeth C. Berigan, a Senior Staff Physician and Chief of the Department of Internal Medicine at the Scott and White Clinic in College Station, Texas, is no stranger to harassment from the anti-choice community. Her coworkers have received hate mail singling out Dr. Berigan, and she is listed as a person to “warn families about” and “pray for” on the local anti-choice coalition’s website. She is not an abortion provider.
Dr. Berigan, who is also an Assistant Clinical Professor of Internal Medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center, has made a name for herself by speaking out in her community on the subject of abortion. “I talk about reproductive health,” she says. “This is a very conservative community, and I am the spokesperson, the lightening rod, on this issue. Through addressing this issue openly, I have come to the conclusion that even in a conservative community such as this, the majority of people do not want others making their medical decisions. This is especially true with the very personal issue of reproductive health.”
As a PRCH Faculty Member of the Medical Abortion Education Project, Dr. Berigan will conduct two CME workshops on medical abortion this year. The goal of this project, a collaboration with The American Medical Women’s Association and the National Abortion Federation, is to increase awareness and knowledge about medical abortion among physicians and the medical community.
Dr. Berigan stresses the importance of medical accuracy in her public speaking, in light of the fact that College Station—along with the rest of the country—is inundated by misinformation. “Anti-choicers have been allowed to shape the abortion debate, and use the words they want to use, such as ‘partial birth,’ and the media doesn’t do their homework,” she says. “The majority of abortions happen at eight weeks or less, when what is involved is primarily menstrual blood and a fluffy, white gestational sac about the size of a quarter. This is very far from the Gerber babies you see pictured in anti-choice literature and posters, and that’s something most people don’t know. People deserve accurate medical information.”
According to Dr. Berigan, the needs of her patients are integral to her stance on reproductive healthcare. “My job is to make them aware of their options so they can make an informed decision–and I’m not the one who has to live with whatever decision they make,” she says. “I want my patients to know that they can come to me without my judgment with any medical concern they might have.”
“I’m a primary care physician–I have to keep up on what the new, best blood pressure medicine is as much as I have to keep up with the new, best birth control methods,” she says. “That’s my responsibility.” Dr. Berigan adds that she feels lucky as a physician to be able to experience and share personal things in her patients’ lives that most people don’t get to witness. “Helping people is a distinct privilege,” she says.
Her activism is personal in nature as well: “I’m a mother of a four-year-old daughter, and heaven forbid my daughter not have safe, legal options when she gets to be of reproductive age,” she says. “And I have a duty to speak out on these topics, because reproductive healthcare is so important for women and their partners. Everyone deserves the freedom to make medical decisions regarding their own bodies without intervention from strangers or the government. And ‘everyone’ includes women.”
Dr. Berigan received her medical degree from the University of Nebraska and completed her residency at the University of California Davis, where she performed outpatient abortions. “There should be more abortion training, and most places don’t require it,” she says. And it’s not just the technical side of abortion she thinks medical students should be learning: “I learned a lot from talking to physicians who were around before Roe v. Wade–women died all the time. Desperate people do desperate things. The question is whether you want people to have safe options, and I most certainly do.”
Although it’s an uphill battle for Dr. Berigan, she is optimistic about the effect her activism has on her community. “The people that I’m interested in reaching out to are people like my secretary, my neighbor, my nursing assistant–the people who aren’t necessarily thinking about these issues and aren’t politically active but who are reasonable,” she says. “You have to reach people like this, because abortion can and will affect them or someone about whom they care.”
A PRCH member since 1998, Dr. Berigan wishes that more physicians of all specialties would be visible on the topic of abortion. “We all have to speak up and say that abortion will always be around, it’s not going to go away,” she says. “People tell me I’m brave for speaking out, and I say, ‘Well, of course I do. Why wouldn’t I? Why won’t you?’”