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Republicans Are Trying to Fight Abortion with Ignorance

Chuck Liddy/Charlotte Observer/MCT via Getty Images

Dr. Matt Zerden has raised his voice before when he felt something was wrong. As a student at Harvard Medical School in 2009, he told  The New York Times he felt  "violated" when he and classmates discovered that a pharmacology professor who preached the benefits of cholesterol-lowering drugs in class was a paid consultant to five companies which made the drugs. "Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be," he told The Times.

Now he's speaking up again. In North Carolina, where Dr. Zerden lives and practices as an OBGYN, he is rallying against an idiotic new state bill. I don’t use that term casually; by sabotaging the state’s own medical schools, House Bill 465 appears designed, in one specific way, to literally produce less intelligent doctors. The bill could keep medical students from learning how to perform an abortion.

Last Thursday, Dr. Zerden spoke at a protest against the bill at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. HB 465, which was proposed  by Republican state lawmaker Pat McElraft, imposes a burdensome 72-hour waiting period for abortion procedures. But the focus of the April 9 protest was a provision on the bill’s fourth page: "State medical school departments prohibited from authorizing employees to perform abortions." It doesn’t apply to cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother—but everything else is fair game. Further, the bill states: 

No department at the medical school at East Carolina University or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shall permit an employee to perform or supervise the performance of an abortion as part of the employee's official duties.

As one doctor trained at UNC told ThinkProgress, if faculty can’t perform the procedure, who can do the training? It seems that is what McElraft is counting on.

UNC’s OBGYN residency, which includes training doctors to perform abortions, is regarded as tops in the South and was recently ranked as the fifth-best in the nation. Last year, the system performed approximately 400 abortions. That would likely change drastically, thanks to HB 465. "There is very real concern among local and national members of the medical community that this bill could put UNC and ECU's accreditation at risk," said Suzanne Buckley, a North Carolina-based reproductive rights law and policy advocate. Lois Backus, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based Medical Students for Choice, added her concern about politicians dictating the education of future physicians. "There is absolutely no research, safety, or medical justification for the changes being made in this bill," Backus told me. "It is anti-abortion politics at its worst."

Shannah Sayers, the interim executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, laid out the harrowing potential for HB 465. "The first thing that would happen if a 72-hour abortion ban passed in North Carolina is that every other Southern state would pass one," she said. "Abortion access in this state would drop significantly as family medicine doctors, who perform minor surgery every day as part of their practices, are no longer able to offer abortion services because they are not OBGYNs. And finally, over the long term, fewer and fewer abortion providers will be available in North Carolina and throughout the South as our flagship medical program at UNC stops being able to provide the next generation of providers."

Dr. Zerden, who did his OBGYN residency at UNC, worries that the university (and the state) will shed medical talent if the bill becomes law. "I chose to come here from Harvard Medical School because the program was so strong and offered comprehensive training in all aspects of women's health, including abortion," the doctor told me. "Many physicians are like myself, in that they remain in the area where they trained to live and work.  By creating a restrictive training environment, we will potentially be turning away great physicians from coming to UNC. I have spoken to resident physicians outside of the field of OBGYN who feel the same way."

The anti-choice platform survives by propagating one fundamentally flawed truth above all: Conservative politicians know more about medicine than doctors do, because God. That is an explanation that relies upon the ignorance of the persuaded and coerced.

Ignorance—both the kind they embrace and the kind they relentlessly promote—has always been a primary tool for conservatives in their battle against reproductive choice. The fewer of us who know about the overwhelming safety of the procedure when performed by licensed medical personnel, the better. The more patients who get diverted from reproductive health services at Planned Parenthood and other locations and towards the pseudo-science found in "crisis pregnancy centers," the better. The more of us caught up in speculating when life actually begins and questioning the rights of the fetus, the better.

The best way for them to advocate their ideas, it seems, is to prevent you from having any of your own. We see what happens when they know they’re losing: They set the bar unnecessarily high for abortion providers, forcing them out and shutting clinic doors. They intimidate patients at those clinics still open with ungodly rhetoric pulled not from the Bible but their own self-righteousness, while shoving posters of dismembered fetuses in patients' faces. And they propose bills like HB 465.

A particularly daft remark by McElraft last week illustrates what I’m talking about. Her flippant comment to WRAL that HB 465 would result in "a few more little taxpayers [being] born" got some media play, but it wasn’t as dangerous as her response when asked how OBGYN doctors would ever learn abortions:

"There are opportunities for doctors to learn this. Abortion physicians learn from all kinds of training–spontaneous abortions or miscarriages. Sometimes, you learn how to act in an emergency situation. There are other options."

She seems confident that future doctors untrained in abortion procedures will learn it on the fly in emergency situations. Perhaps one in which a pregnant patient’s life is at stake.

McElraft, who did not respond to requests for comment, is hardly the only one willing to toss the lives of women into this sick lottery. "We've seen similar efforts to restrict access to training in Kansas, Texas and Arizona," Buckley said. "This is clearly about cutting off access to abortion care by any means necessary, but under the guise of women's health and safety—but it's hard to see how shutting down one of the best programs in the country helps to make women's health safer."

This bill signifies that Republicans like McElraft understand they’ve lost the argument on abortion. Only by sheer elective and legislative strength have they made horrendous dents in the rights of pregnant patients throughout the country, particularly in states like North Carolina and others controlled by Republicans since the 2010 election. They wouldn’t be proposing bills like HB 465 if they thought the country was on their side. 

Dr. Zerden told me about a recent patient who was referred to him for a medically necessary second-trimester abortion because her doctor lacked the expertise to perform the procedure. "She and her husband, despite going through a traumatic experience, were extremely appreciative," he said, adding that they had been aware of HB 465. "They recognized what could be lost if this bill was passed."

Republicans may lose more than an argument if this misogynist nonsense becomes law. The GOP leadership in the state seems to get this; per reports, they want to concentrate on jobs and the economy. Governor Pat McCrory, who long ago broke his 2010 campaign promise not to sign new abortion restrictions, is up for re-election in 2016 in a purple state. To date, he hasn’t said anything about HB 465. It’s about time he spoke up, if only to escape being associated with such an extreme and dangerous measure. Even if Republicans continue to salt the earth with anti-choice bills like HB 465, he should realize that making doctors more ignorant and patients less safe is no way to win the argument on abortion.