By Dr. Timothy Spurrell
June 21, 2016
IDEAS

Spurrell is a doctor who works with Whole Woman’s Health


As the first person in my family to go to college, I thought becoming a doctor was a dream come true. It may sound corny, but it was a calling. I never expected to become an abortion provider. In fact, I started my career in mental-health care. Yet even as my career shifted, my reasons for providing care have remained constant. From the start, I knew I wanted to help patients: to be there for people who were going through difficult times, to empower them in their own lives and to help them understand their options as they navigated challenges. So in some ways, making the decision to provide abortion was a natural extension of my approach to medicine from day one.

What distinguishes my work from that of other medical professionals is the way that abortion specifically, and women’s health more generally, have become politicized. I never considered myself a political person. Of course, you shouldn’t have to be “political” to provide health care. But sadly, that’s the reality today.

To be an abortion provider today means looking over your shoulder on the way to work. It means worrying about protesters or bullies at your kids’ school. It means watching as politicians who want to ban abortion outright make it harder and harder for us to serve our patients. In the face of stigma and an onslaught of laws designed to punish our patients and shut us down, providing abortion care has become a political act.

That’s why I decided to fly more than 1,700 miles, each way, every other week, to provide abortion services in Texas, one of the most hostile political environments for abortion care that I’ve ever seen.

I remember when I first traveled to Texas to work in a clinic. At that time, Texas’ extreme anti-abortion law, passed in 2013, had already shut down many providers in the state. As a result, the waiting room in the clinic was packed and chaotic. I’d never seen so many patients in need. There were women who’d driven hundreds of miles for their appointments, some of whom had slept in their cars the night before. There were women who’d sold nearly everything they had to put together the money to pay for the procedure. There were women on the phone with their kids, telling them that mommy would be home soon.

Their faces told stories that have stayed with me. I saw exhaustion from the struggles they’d gone through to get to us, I saw determination to get the care they knew they needed, and I saw hope—hope for all of the possible futures that ending a pregnancy might allow for them.

You’ve probably heard of the part of Texas abortion bill, HB 2, that requires doctors who provide abortion in Texas to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. And if you don’t work at a clinic, I can see how such a thing might sound good or helpful. But the reality is that this regulation is designed to end abortion in the state. Getting admitting privileges at a local hospital is an arduous process, and unfortunately, because of abortion stigma and extreme anti-choice rules at religious hospitals, most refuse to grant them. In my 20 years as a physician, I have no blemishes on my record of any kind and have never been denied privileges anywhere in the country. But in Texas, it was exceedingly difficult.

I persevered, though, and was able to get admitting privileges to continue providing care after HB 2 went into effect. Here’s where the law’s intentional unworkability kicks in. To keep admitting privileges, I would have to admit a certain number of patients to the hospital. But abortion in the vast majority of cases is a simple and safe procedure, and very few patients ever require follow-up or emergency care afterward. So because the vast majority of my patients never needed follow-up care, I lost my privileges.

This regulation is designed to force doctors like me to hop from one hospital to another, begging for privileges that we won’t be able to keep, precisely because we’re providing quality service and because abortion is so safe

And if any of my patients ever did need emergency care after the procedure, she could simply go to the nearest emergency room, which may or may not be where I had privileges, and she could get the care she needed because that’s what hospitals do.

The admitting privileges requirement is just one part of HB 2, but it’s indicative of the real purpose behind the whole thing. This law is about shutting us down and forcing us to waste time and resources we’d rather use to care for patients.

I wouldn’t be able to do this work if it weren’t for my wife and five beautiful sons. They know what I do and support me completely. In 2000, when I became an abortion provider, I just wanted to provide quality care. Over the last 16 years, it’s gotten harder. I’ve seen clinics close, I’ve seen my colleagues targeted with violence and harassment, and I’ve seen some leave the profession out of concern for their family or their safety.

My wife—she’s the political one—tells me: “Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t be defined by the beliefs of the politicians and the protesters. You’re there to help women.” So that’s what I do.

My wife sends me photos of what I miss back home while I am on the other side of the country providing abortion. In the photos, I see my boys grow and learn and try new things. I wish I could be there for every ball game, every recital, every scraped knee and tough homework assignment, but I’m not. And that’s OK, because I’m where I need to be.

There’s a reason I don’t talk about my work much, because it’s not about me. I’d like nothing more than simply to go to work in the morning, see patients, and then come home and play with my boys. I’m not much of a public speaker. But I can no longer remain silent as my patients, many of whom are afraid themselves to speak out or feel shamed for their decision, are targeted by political attacks.

I’m speaking out now because this has to stop. The clinic shutdown laws, the absurd hoops doctors and patients are forced to jump through, the rhetoric of blame and shame—it has to stop. A woman who has decided to end her pregnancy deserves compassion, respect and dignity. I may not have planned to become an abortion provider, but I am now, and I will continue to be as long as patients need these services. It’s what I do.

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