“I had an unintended pregnancy when I was an intern. Despite my extensive education, I was in denial until the second trimester. At the time of diagnosis, I felt appalled at my blindness and stupidity. The doctor who treated me, a very wise and humane physician, said, ‘You will be a much better physician because of this experience. You’ll have much less of an urge to rush to judgment about people.’ He was very kind, and he was right.”
Suzanne T. Poppema, MD, has been dedicated to protecting women’s health and their right to abortion for more than 30 years. Though she has retired from seeing patients, she remains committed to the cause and is excited about her new role as board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. “PRCH brings together practitioners from so many different specialties, all united in respect for our patients,” she says. “I am so happy to take on a leadership role.”
Dr. Poppema began her career as a family practitioner who provided abortions as well as a range of other health services. But then she had an epiphany about where her efforts were needed most: “I realized that if you came into the world as a wanted child, you had so many more advantages than an unwanted child—in all ways,” she says. “At that point, I sold my family practice and started doing abortion services full time.”
It was in 1990—at the beginning of an era of clinic violence—that Dr. Poppema started running her own abortion clinic. “Fear was in the air,” she says. “A friend of mine in Vancouver was shot in his home.” Her staff wouldn’t let her leave the clinic without her bulletproof vest.
“There are ways in which it was easier to be an abortion advocate and provider in 1974,” Dr. Poppema reflects. “Then, everyone was really excited about legal abortion, because everyone remembered how horrible and dangerous it was when it was illegal. Getting training was hard, but there wasn’t nearly as much fear.”
The fear also affected her patients: “Women were surprised when we treated them with respect and honor in a clean and professional clinic. Women were expecting to be treated badly.” Dr. Poppema felt lucky that she could help many of her patients take the first step in regaining control of their lives. Many women told her that they simply did not know what they would have done if she hadn’t been there for them. “It would not have been easy for them. It’s different from other specialties,” she explains. “The number of providers is limited.”
That is why Dr. Poppema is so excited about PRCH’s emphasis on training residents and undergraduates to provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare—including abortions. “Reproductive healthcare providers can feel very isolated,” she says. “We have strength—and community—in numbers.” And this strength and community is fortified by PRCH’s political advocacy work. “When I speak as a PRCH physician, I am listened to,” she says. “We are viewed as the voice of science and reason. We bring evidence to an emotionally charged arena.”
Finally, Dr. Poppema remains dedicated to the cause for very personal reasons. “Knowing personally what it felt like to be trapped by a pregnancy that I knew I could not continue—under any circumstances—made it very clear to me that providing abortions was a very important thing to do,” she says. “I remain as passionately committed to reproductive health and rights as I was when I started providing abortion services in 1974, and I look forward to the challenges and opportunities that PRCH faces.”
Dr. Poppema currently serves as Director of International Medical Consulting and is a retired Associate Clinical Professor in Family Medicine at the University of Washington. She lives in Washington state with her husband. They have two grown sons.
Photo by Brett Deutsch