Jody Steinauer, MD

Medical Students for Choice Founder

Dr. Jody Steinauer, a third-year ob/gyn resident at the University of California San Francisco and a founder of Medical Students for Choice, remembers feeling targeted by the anti-choice community as a first-year medical student. “A graphic, threatening anti-choice mailing went out to something like 30,000 medical students, and it was right around then that Dr. David Gunn was murdered. Those two events felt connected.”

It was shortly thereafter that Dr. Steinauer and some of her peers realized that there was no abortion training in their curriculum. They decided to organize. The result was Medical Students for Choice, now nearly seven years old and representing more than 5,200 medical students and residents in the U.S. and Canada.

According to Dr. Steinauer, students from all over the country were starting to organize right around the same time she was. “At the beginning, there was a huge wave of energy across the country. It was just a loose group of students, but they were ready.”

There were obstacles, however, especially in terms of learning how to address the varying issues of students: “Many students in the Midwest weren’t getting any training whatsoever in women’s health, whereas others in California had a great reproductive health curriculum, with the exception of abortion as an isolated topic. We had to recognize that ours was a bottom-up message, meaning we’d have to address each situation individually. In the end, it was a lot about giving people the inspiration and support to organize.”

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Dr. Steinauer, students are coming into medical school with an added awareness of reproductive health issues. “In college I was an activist and volunteered at a clinic,” she says, “I went to medical school to do women’s health, but I didn’t think that much about abortion specifically. I didn’t really understand how hard it was to get abortion training, and assumed it would be available to me. Nowadays there are pre-med students who are getting into this specifically because of the lack of providers—they’re more informed now.”

Dr. Steinauer, a PRCH member, sees an important, lasting connection between physicians and medical students, and not just in terms of training. “Physicians, even if they’re not out there providing abortions, need to support those who do,” she says. “For example, there are medical schools that won’t even allow Medical Students for Choice to meet. There are professors who are in the position to combat that.”

Dr. Steinauer recognizes, however, that the decision to provide abortions is not as simple for young physicians as it might have been two decades ago. “I think nowadays it’s less clear cut than for the doctors who saw what it was like when abortion was illegal and as a result are committed to provide no matter what. There are complex decisions to make. Students should think about how important abortion is to them in general, what kind of training feels right and at what gestational age they feel comfortable providing. Maybe one student decides she will just do medication or manual vacuum aspiration, while another will provide comprehensively—but not when his children are school age. Maybe another decides to donate $1,000 to PRCH instead of providing. It’s important to be honest with yourself about these things. You can be pro-choice but ambivalent about some of the issues. Just as women should have the choice of whether to get an abortion, doctors should have the choice of whether to provide them. But you can’t have the choice if you haven’t been educated.”

It is this kind of dedication that Dr. Steinauer finds vital to the profession. “To be a doctor, you have to be an activist,” she says. “You make a commitment to your patients to be advocates for their health. There are so many things doctors can do: They can give money or time, they can provide abortions, they can train students and residents, they can do research on women’s health, they can work on a policy level. Being an activist is the responsibility of the physician.”