After having her first child, Dr. Stephanie Gustin and her husband started thinking it was time to leave California. When Gustin got a job offer from Omaha’s Heartland Center For Reproductive Medicine, it cemented their move to her home state in 2015. Gustin never doubted she had made the right decision. Until this summer.
“Now that we’re in this political mass, it’s the first time I’ve ever questioned where I chose to bring our family,” said Gustin, a reproductive endocrinologist.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade on June 24 has prompted fear, confusion and anger for some in the medical community. As Nebraska eyes more restrictive abortion laws, which doctors like Gustin say endanger themselves and patients, local reproductive rights advocates have taken a new strategy. On July 1, Gustin and other local doctors started Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska, a Political Action Committee that aims to educate and advocate for access to reproductive rights, including abortion.
So far that’s meant holding small gatherings at volunteers’ homes to strategize how to educate voters on the complexities of reproductive care not being addressed by most politicians — specifically the medical nuances that affect each patient’s decision. The PAC’s eight founding members, which include four doctors from the Methodist Health System, three from the Heartland Center and one from a private practice hope to make educational videos and other materials that can be disseminated to the public.
“Because if you’re not medical, if you’re not doing this every day, I don’t think that most people recognize the implications until they’re laid out,” said Dr. Emily Patel, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Methodist Women’s Hospital.
As a traditional PAC, the group also plans to donate money to candidates who support reproductive rights, so far raising more than $200,000, Gustin said.
Physicians say threatening health care like abortions, and the myriad of legal interpretations and consequences that entails, is not only a professional imperative, but also a moral one.
“You can bet that there will be women who will die because physicians are scared, because they’re worried that something that they do that is medically sound might be interpreted as illegal by the law,” Patel said.
When “trigger bill” LB 933, which would have banned all abortions, narrowly failed in the Nebraska Legislature this past April, Gustin said it sent a red flag to physicians.
Doctors, 150 of which signed a petition opposing LB 933 along with the Nebraska Medical Association and Nebraska Pharmacists Association, say this legislation could penalize life-saving procedures. Advocates for abortion bans said those concerns are blown out of proportion. Either way, founders of Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska say they were frightened by the “loose hold” legislation had on the consequences for patients and providers.
“We started talking as fertility doctors and that discussion then started to evolve into including other OBGYNs,” Gustin said. “We realiz[ed] that we need to provide education, and education needs to come from us rather than politicians who don’t understand what we do.”
Besides advocating for abortion as a key element of reproductive health and medical privacy, many PAC members specialize in IVF, procedures that would’ve been deemed illegal by LB 933 and could still be criminalized if similar legislation were to pass in the future.
“Many of these bills are very overreaching and overarching. Often, they start with defining life at conception,” said Dr. Abigail Delaney, reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Methodist Women’s Hospital. “As a part of in vitro fertilization, we take eggs and sperm, combine them outside the body to create embryos, and then transfer embryos back to a woman’s uterus. Anytime that an embryo is given personhood, where they are given legal rights equal to a living, breathing citizen, it makes our job impossible.”
Explaining exactly what comes with anti-abortion legislation like Nebraska’s past attempts, which passed successfully in several other states, is integral to Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska. And it may be a point many are ready to hear.
A Pew Research poll found that 50% of Nebraskans thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases and a recent ACLU of Nebraska poll found 55% opposed banning abortion. However, the nuances of reproductive health — IVF, medically induced abortions, what circumstances should preclude or necessitate a procedure — are complicated. Total bans have created confusion and fear among doctors, especially in life-or-death scenarios where state and federal law conflict.
State leaders had signaled they would be interested in calling a special session of the Nebraska Legislature to resume talks on abortion legislation, however that hasn’t happened yet. Campaign for a Healthy Nebraska members say they’re ready to protest if new legislation appears, but their eyes are also fixed on November and giving voters the information they need when considering politicians’ stances on abortion.
“It is important to point out to the public how wide-reaching these implications are,” Patel said. “I see scenarios in which pregnancy could put a mother’s life at risk, and that could be immediately life-threatening. It could also mean that in the next six months or a year. it could affect that person’s life or alter their lifespan. When I talk to patients about abortion, it’s in the face of really grave circumstances, circumstances that we can’t paint black and white. Even if the law says that it will have an exception for maternal life, how do we define that?”
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