Eric Schaff, MD

Focusing on Training

Dr. Eric Schaff is a pediatrician who has specialized in adolescent medicine for 22 years. When he started his practice, he expected to see teens with acne and sports injuries. He did not expect to see high rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among his patients. He treats about 3,000 patients a year at the Anthony Jordan Health Center, which provides free primary healthcare to inner-city teens in Rochester, NY. “Each year, about 300 teens become pregnant, and about half of them seek abortions because they are not prepared for parenthood or another child,” says Dr. Schaff. “They are a terribly voiceless population because they are minorities, they are poor, they are female and they are teenagers. Access to abortion services can be very difficult.”

At first, Dr. Schaff assisted his patients through referrals and helping them with insurance. “It’s simple,” he says. “I became an advocate for them because I was doing my job as a doctor.” In the mid-1990s, when he learned about methotrexate (an anti-metabolite drug approved in 1954 and used in the treatment of ectopic pregnancy since the early 1980s), he created a research team at the University of Rochester to study medication abortion with methotrexate. When he began to offer this option to the women in his community, the response was astounding. “The women were so appreciative of having the option of an early, non-surgical abortion.”

Starting in 1994, the University of Rochester became a major site for the study of methotrexate. In 1996, they were asked to coordinate the Abortion Rights Mobilization mifepristone trials. “We said, ‘sure,’ thinking it would be approved within six months,” recalls Schaff. “Now, six trials, 7,000 women and five years later, it has.”

Dr. Schaff is excited about the possibilities the FDA approval of mifepristone has opened up for physicians and their patients. “Most doctors are supportive of choice, and medication abortion could provide a way for them to directly help their patients,” he says. “With medication abortion, there is the opportunity to finally realize the initial intent of Roe v. Wade, i.e., that abortion can be a confidential matter between a woman and her physician.”

In 1997, Dr. Schaff was trained by Planned Parenthood of New York City in surgical abortion. “I felt inadequate because I had to rely on other physicians for medication abortion complications. Since I learned these surgical skills, I feel empowered as a clinician because I can provide complete reproductive healthcare.”

Dr. Schaff, who is also a professor at the University of Rochester Medical School and School of Nursing, believes all ob/gyn and family practice doctors should know how to perform a surgical completion for miscarriage. “It’s a very basic, lifesaving skill,” he says. “Miscarriages have been going on since time began, and physicians have to know how to deal with women with vaginal bleeding. Surgical completion is a skill that these physicians can master. This is a critical skill needed to provide back up for medication abortion care.”

“Training is critical to getting people involved,” says Schaff, “but training has become very problematic.” Dr. Schaff is committed to providing that training: The University of Rochester Medical School, which offers a fellowship in abortion and family planning, is one of seven such programs in the country. Schaff’s program, however, is the only fellowship program in a department of family medicine.

“One has to question the sanity of doctors who provide abortions, because of all the isolation and harassment,” he says. “But in all the craziness around abortion, it’s the deep gratitude of our patients that makes it worthwhile, along with knowing that they are one step closer to achieving their goals.”