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A Hard Choice: A young medical student tries to decide if she has what it takes to join the diminishing ranks of abortion providers

By Patricia Meisol
Sunday, November 23, 2008

The kind of doctor Lesley Wojick aspired to be stood at a lectern at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, issuing tough challenges to the young medical students who had gathered to hear her on a cold Saturday.

You think you are pro-choice, Carole Meyers was saying. But, really, "how pro-choice are you? What does it mean for you? What's your limit? Will you do an abortion on a woman who is 12 weeks pregnant? Twenty-four weeks pregnant?"

What's your limit with birth defects? she asked. "Would you do an abortion at 28 weeks if the baby had a club foot? How about hemophilia?"

Meyers, a 51-year-old obstetrician and genetics expert, has performed hundreds of abortions over the course of her career and, until earlier this year, served as the medical director of Planned Parenthood of Maryland. She loves her work -- it's very rewarding, she said, and women always thank her -- but she doesn't shrink from examining abortion's ethical dilemmas or from setting her own limits. The truth, she told Lesley and the other medical students, is that abortion is not a black-and-white issue, not for patients and not for doctors.

"If you are going to perform abortions, how is your family going to think about it?" she asked. "How will you tell your kids? What are you going to do if your church doesn't want you to come anymore?"

How are you going to feel about a patient who admits she has picketed the clinic in the past? she continued. "What about the woman who comes in for her third abortion and doesn't want to hear about birth control? How are you going to feel about that?"

I'll tell you how I feel, Meyers declared. "I get mad, frustrated, angry."

The doctor's charged words appealed to Lesley, a 24-year-old second-year medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who had helped organize this regional student-hosted, daylong abortion seminar last year. Lesley respected forthrightness and unconventional thinking. Like Meyers, she had never been afraid to reveal doubts. She wanted to think about complicated questions, to hear about the rewards of being an abortion provider as well as the difficulties.

Tall, thin and smartly dressed, Lesley was five months away from starting her third year of medical school, when she would finally begin caring for patients and touring the medical specialties in search of the right one for her. Obstetrics and gynecology was Lesley's No. 1 choice, and in theory, it was a perfect fit. It offered her the chance to form relationships with women and teens, to be their counselor and their surgeon, to provide preventive care and family planning. And it coincided with her politics.

She had joined Medical Students for Choice, an abortion education group with chapters on 135 U.S. campuses, as soon as she arrived at Maryland. The nation's abortion doctors were graying, and unless a new generation took their place, the right to abortion might be rendered meaningless. Lesley imagined herself being part of that new generation. But would her support for abortion translate into action?

"I won't know until I'm faced with doing it, but I think I would absolutely be able to provide [abortions]," she said. "It's walk the walk, instead of talk the talk. I want my actions to be consistent with my words."

How medical students choose to become abortion providers is in some ways no different from how they choose to become cardiac surgeons or pediatric neurologists. They explore the specialty and test themselves in it, finding some connection to a patient or a mentor that ignites their passion. Except for one difference: Medical students must explore abortion largely on their own.

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