Med schools vary on abortion instruction

When Megan Evans, a third-year medical student at GW, heard about the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in Kansas last May, she was worried that the incident, and others involving violence toward abortion clinics and providers, would scare people away from learning about and providing the procedure.

But instead, Evans, who serves as the national president of Medical Students for Choice, feels the abortion rights community has come closer together.

“[The abortion rights community] realized how important it was to continue to provide abortions because making [them] illegal or making it almost impossible wouldn’t decrease abortion,” Evans said. “Everyone who I know who wants to include abortion in their practice never once said, ‘I can’t do it because of Dr. Tiller.’ “

Abortion has been a hot-button issue in politics for decades, and the controversy played a key role in the health care debates earlier this month. But the face of abortion providers is changing. Figures released by a PBS special called “NOW” last summer indicate that from 1985 to 2005 the number of overall abortion providers dropped by one-third, from 2,680 to 1,787. A 2008 study by the journal Contraception showed that 63 percent of second trimester abortion providers are over the age of 50. As for the future of abortion providers, a survey of MSFC members published by Contraception showed that 33 percent of respondents received no coverage of elective abortion-related topics in required medical curriculum.

And in D.C., at the medical schools of GW and Georgetown, the ways in which the issue is taught and addressed differ.

At Georgetown, a private Jesuit institution, medical students are not taught about abortion in the classroom. At GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, students receive a short lecture about the procedure, but not much more. At both schools, however, there is an opportunity to learn more about the practice if a student desires, officials and students from both schools said.

At Georgetown, Dean for Medical Education Stephen Ray Mitchell said medical students receive a full curriculum in issues on women’s health but the “full curriculum” does not include specific instruction on performing abortions.

“[The students] also have a full discussion of all options including choices around adoption, etc. Our Catholic hospital does respect the Catholic religious and social directives so that those procedures are not performed at Georgetown University Hospital or at Catholic Good Samaritan Hospital, which is within our Medstar Network,” Mitchell said.

Michelle Sutherland, a second-year medical student and a co-leader of the Medical Students for Choice Chapter at Georgetown, said she believes Georgetown will never teach abortion in a classroom setting.

“It’s not even close to feasible,” Sutherland said. “We don’t really go there.”

At Georgetown, Sutherland said that similar to a residency program, students need to “opt in” to learn about providing abortions; they have to ask in order to be taught.

“If you want to learn you can, but no one is going to suggest it. So while Georgetown doesn’t encourage learning those skills for the purposes of providing abortions, I wouldn’t say they actively discourage or prevent student from learning,” she said.

Sutherland said that her group’s role is not to make Georgetown students abortion providers, but to show them it is not their choice to make that decision for their patients. She said that the lack of support the chapter receives from the University does not hinder a student’s ability to learn about abortions.

A group on Georgetown’s campus, Plan A: Hoyas for Reproductive Justice, held protests and demonstrations last weekend in which some members chained themselves to the statue of Georgetown’s founder for eight hours to pressure the Georgetown administration to provide reproductive resources and sex education, and to stop censorship on abortion rights groups. The group said the Georgetown administrators agreed to meet with members Tuesday.

“For us, [abortion] is part of health care. We don’t see it as a separate issue,” said Erica Slates, vice president of the group H*yas for Choice and a leading member of Plan A. “We feel these are health and safety issues for Georgetown. Georgetown is responsible for protecting the health and safety of their students while keeping their Jesuit identity. We don’t think they conflict and Georgetown can do both, and that’s the role of the university, to do both.”

While GW doesn’t specifically teach how to perform an abortion either, the school offers a one-hour lecture on abortion in the second year of medical school, Evans said.

“While we don’t have a specific lab or course to teach abortions, as with any surgical procedure, we want our students to understand what the procedure entails and to recognize complications,” Dean of GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences James Scott said in an e-mail.

Some feel it is both to the patient and the doctor’s disadvantage to not provide such information because medical students and patients have the right to learn and be taught.

“I think that it’s almost a disservice to patients in general to have their physician not aware of what is out there. If you feel it is outside of your comfort, you need to be aware of what is being done,” said Brian Droker, a fourth-year GW medical student who received his master’s degrees in physiology and biophysics from Georgetown.

Hadas Gold contributed to this report.

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