On Monday, Bwog Staff Writers Harriet Engelke and Serena Saad attended a women’s health panel hosted by Planned Parenthood Generation of Columbia. 

Content warning: Mentions of sexual assault. 

The Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade contributed to an already existing crisis in reproductive healthcare. States quickly tightened their abortion regulations, with fourteen states implementing complete bans on abortion in almost all circumstances. In light of this reproductive crisis, on Monday, October 9, Planned Parenthood Generation of Columbia University hosted a panel discussion with experts in the field. Members gathered to learn about the problems that plague reproductive health and how to become involved in women’s health. 

The panel started with introductions of the speakers—particularly highlighting their ties to the Columbia and Barnard communities. Introduced first was Dr. Diana Contreras, an OB/GYN and now Chief Healthcare Officer at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Dr. Contreras was a graduate of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (VP&S) and also received an MPH at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Introduced next was author and playwright Rachel Mann, who is currently working on her first screenwriting project “Right to Privacy,” a short narrative film from the viewpoint of an abortion provider. Mann attended Columbia College as an English major. The panel also included Dr. Lorraine Chrisomalis-Valasadis, an OB/GYN at Columbia Presbyterian who attended Barnard College and received her doctorate degree at VP&S. 

Dr. Contreras described how Planned Parenthood exists nationwide to provide quality healthcare for women, establishing that her main goal as Chief Healthcare Officer is to make the organization the people’s provider and resource of choice. She emphasized the importance of health equity in making this possible and how she believes in giving people the healthcare they want, not what she thinks they need. However, while she acknowledged the progress made toward achieving reproductive access, she still believes it is not enough . This is evident in the challenges that Planned Parenthood continues to face. The type of care it can provide is driven by state regulations, which can often be difficult to manage given the complexities of the health care system. Dr. Contreras also described the risks that Planned Parenthood clinics across the country deal with on a daily basis. For example, patients, upon entrance, are often bombarded with protestors—just last week, shots were fired in front of a Montana Planned Parenthood clinic. Both speakers highlighted the bravery of clinic escorts, volunteers who shield patients from harassment as they enter Planned Parenthood. 

In addition to covering Planned Parenthood’s aims for providing access to reproductive health and gynecological services, Dr. Contreras and Mann emphasized the varying threats to women’s healthcare today. For one, with historical and systemic racism in the medical world, Dr. Contreras highlighted that hesitancy from marginalized groups to pursue care is not unwarranted, but that her priority is to listen to exactly what patients want. She addressed how the field of gynecology was founded on racism, as demonstrated by Dr. Sims, who infamously experimented on enslaved, unanesthetized Black women. These systemic issues hold many roots in medical education—in medical school, for example, Dr. Contreras was taught that Black women have wider pelvises than white women, and today there remains misconstrued teachings of the differences between Black and white female patients, such as the belief that Black women have “thicker skin” and a higher pain tolerance. Dr. Contreras stressed the importance of acknowledging the racist roots and teachings of gynecology in order to make progress in inclusivity. 

The event’s speakers highlighted the various nationwide attempts to disempower patients. As Dr. Contreras explained, one of the most daunting aspects of gynecology is the power dynamic, and the most important way to combat this is through creating a trusting environment and making patients’ voices heard. This conversation is particularly prevalent in light of Columbia Presbyterian OB-GYN Robert Hadden’s judicial sentencing for sexually assaulting patients.

In conversations about the politics behind the right to abortion, the event’s speakers also highlighted that even blue states have the need to remain engaged and advocate for reproductive rights. Abortion always remains on the ballot and it is not impossible to have rights stripped away given last summer’s Dobbs v. Jackson outcome that removed the federal right to abortion. Dr. Contreras referenced the Comstock Act, which says that the United States Postal Service cannot transport any items having to do with abortion, whether that be pills or medical supplies. While it is currently not in place throughout the United States, the Act is supported by anti-abortion activists as a method of restricting abortion. She explained how if enforced, it would have the effect of restricting abortion, even in blue states.  

In addition to politics, Rachel Mann discussed how her work shines a light onto reproductive justice through art and storytelling. Mann discussed her film “Right to Privacy” which is currently in post-production and delves into the role that abortion providers play in reproductive justice. Mann explained how the perspective of the provider is one that is often overlooked in the conversation about abortion, with her documentary aiming to give a platform to these narratives by depicting an abortion provider’s interaction with anti-abortion protestors. For Mann, it is important to tell women’s stories, this principle existing both on and off the camera: most of the crew and people working on the film, for instance, are women. Similarly important to the narrative, the location of the clinic is purposefully not stated as this ambiguity is intended to represent the experience of the providers around the country, not in a specific state. 

With their discussion of today’s state of reproductive rights, the speakers underscored that there is still progress to be made in terms of reproductive access. They, instead, stated throughout the discussion that they are disappointed in how little progress has been made in terms of reproductive justice. Yet, the conversation ended on a note of hope and a call to action. They discussed the varying ways in which Barnard and Columbia students can pursue reproductive justice in their careers and activism. Storytelling, law, medicine, business, and environmental justice are just a few of the areas in which reproductive rights must be incorporated. As Mann stated, everyone’s individual experiences and histories are relevant in the field of gynecological and women’s health. 

Speakers via @cu_plannedparenthood on Instagram