P&S Journal: Fall 1996, Vol.16, No.3
P&S Students: Activism Lives
Student activist" is a label that brings to mind another era. College students at a sit-in in the pre-Civil Rights South, or a Vietnam War protestor pushing flowers in the barrel of a National Guardsman's gun. Whatever image, the phrase "student activist" is not likely to bring to mind a medical student in the 1990s.
Then there's Hillary Kunins, who graduated from P&S in May 1996. During her first year at P&S, a number of events put her at the center of what would become a national forum on abortion access and education. In addition to the murder of an abortion doctor in Florida and other acts of violence against reproductive health workers, she learned about a shrinking number of reproductive health care providers by reading an article written by Columbia's Dr. Carolyn Westhoff, Dr. Frances Marks, and Dr. Allan Rosenfield. The article, published in Obstetrics and Gynecology, revealed that declining numbers of ob/gyn residency programs provide abortion training.
"I found that obscene," says Dr. Kunins. "With the graying of abortion providers and no one to replace them, it occurred to me that in the near future, even though legally we may have abortion access, there won't be any providers." Dr. Kunins realized she and her peers would need to speak out. "I came to medical school after working as a counselor in both an abortion clinic and a reproductive health clinic, so I really wanted to integrate activism with my school activities. I thought we could petition that residency programs be required to provide abortion training to all ob/gyn residents who are not at moral or religious odds with the procedure."
That's when she met Jody Steinhauer, a medical student at the University of California at San Francisco who wanted to start a national organization of medical students to support abortion education. The two women merged ideas, forming Medical Students for Choice.
"Our first big project was a signature campaign in 1994," says Dr. Kunins. "We collected 4,000 signatures of students asking that the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education require ob/gyn residency programs to teach abortion." ACGME is responsible for accrediting post-M.D. medical training programs within the United States. Ultimately, says Dr. Kunins, ACGME made abortion and reproductive health education a requirement for residency training accreditation, but the requirement was nullified this year by Congress. Update, the Medical Students for Choice newsletter, reported in May 1996, "Although the ACGME requirement includes a very liberal conscience clause...it was not acceptable to some politicians who control the federal funding of ACGME-accredited medical institutions."
Despite that setback, Dr. Kunins believes the student organization has succeeded in informing students and rallying their support. Now in its fourth year, Medical Students for Choice is a national organization with local chapters on more than 100 campuses.
This year, the National Abortion Federation, an organization of abortion providers, established an Early Achievement Award to recognize a third- or fourth-year medical student for "commitment and accomplishments toward ensuring that abortion remains a safe and viable reproductive health option." Dr. Kunins and Ms. Steinhauer (who delayed her medical school education for one year to raise money for Medical Students for Choice) were the first recipients of the award. The nomination letter, written by Dr. Wendy Chavkin, P&S associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology, cited Dr. Kunins' activism both at P&S and nationally. "Ms. Kunins used a brilliant strategy that joined the issues of medical training and education, professional responsibility, and organizing to encourage pro-choice activity on at least five medical school campuses in the tri-state area. Her approach educated the people who will hold the key to ameliorating the provider shortage."
Medical Students for Choice now has a full-time director and is supported by private funds. And although she has left her student days behind to start a residency in internal medicine, Dr. Kunins remains active in the organization as secretary of the board of directors.