Lack of Professional Support and Prohibitive Policies Pose Major Obstacles to Abortion Care by Trained Physicians

Ingrained stigma and barriers within medical practices are major obstacles to the provision of abortion care by providers trained to offer elective abortions, according to a study to be published in the September 2010 issue of the Guttmacher Institute’s Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The authors are Lori Freedman, Uta Landy, Philip Darney and Jody Steinauer of the University of California, San Francisco.

Findings of the study are based on interviews with 30 obstetrician-gynecologists who had graduated 5–10 years earlier from residency programs that included abortion training. They found that although 18 had planned to offer elective abortions after their residency, only three were actually doing so.

The majority reported that they were unable to provide abortions because of formal and informal policies restricting abortion provision imposed by their private group practices, employers and hospitals.

While some of these restrictions had been made explicit when the physicians interviewed for a job, others had become apparent only after the doctors had joined a practice or institution. A few physicians had attempted to moonlight as abortion providers while working in settings that prohibited abortion provision, but found that they were prohibited from offering abortion services outside the practice as well. Respondents indicated that the strain abortion provision might put on their relationships with superiors and coworkers was also a deterrent.

The findings, the authors assert, run counter to the prevailing assumption that physicians avoid abortion provision out of fear of violence or harassment. The authors instead observe that new physicians often lack the professional support and autonomy necessary to perform abortions, but that training programs may be able to help prepare them to continue providing abortions as they make the transition from residency programs to practice. They suggest that training new physicians in contract negotiation and leadership skills related to conflict management, as well as linking them with colleagues and community members who support abortion provision, could be beneficial.

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