Her mission began with a threat and a killing. Seven [years ago a crudely drawn flyer, depicting a doctor with a butcher knife and a bloody coat, was mailed to the homes of thousands of medical students nationwide. Jody Steinauer, for one, was shocked when she saw the broadside, headlined "Bottom Feeder" and intended to discourage students from studying abortion methods. Says Steinauer, now 31: "It was so sick." Just a couple of weeks after the newsletter circulated, physician David Gunn was shot to death at his Florida clinic, the first murder victim in the pro-choice movement. [P] The two events galvanized Steinauer, who, from that point onward, resolved to make sure that future medical students would be able to learn about every aspect of women's health—even abortion. During the 1980s funding for schools teaching abortion had been threatened by right-to-life lobbyists. Even at her school in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area there was no instruction in abortion methods. "A lot of schools just didn't want the hassle," says Steinauer. [P] Determined to change that, she helped found Medical Students for Choice. From modest beginnings (she took a year off from school to raise funds) the association has grown to some 5,000 members at more than 100 medical schools. Under the pressure of the group's petition drives, several schools have reinstituted abortion training and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology has urged that abortion be part of a standard medical education. "We felt really great about that," she says. [P] Not everyone does. MSFC meetings have been disrupted, posters confiscated, members harassed. One student had her tires slashed, another's mother answered the phone to hear a voice ask, "Do you know your daughter is a sinner?" And many campuses have groups actively opposed to abortion. "You don't want to teach doctors how to kill patients," says Jan Carroll of the California ProLife Council, which opposes the teaching of abortion methods. Wary of threats by violent fringe groups, Steinauer and other MSFC are reluctant to name their schools, hometowns or family members. Explains Steinauer: "It's one thing to target me, but it's unfair for it to happen to them." [P] The product of a classic midwestern upbringing that included frequent attendance at Protestant church services with her mother, Steinauer had a personal as well as professional reason for her pro-choice stand. Her mother got pregnant as a teenager, when abortion was illegal. Ultimately, she decided not to risk an unsafe backroom procedure and put her baby daughter up for adoption. Steinauer, who has two other siblings, is glad she did—she was reunited with her long-lost sister a few years ago—but still says her mother's experience motivated her to help make safe abortion available to women who want it. [P] After receiving the threatening flyer, she spent her summer break from med school as an intern with the National Abortion Federation in Washington, D.C., where she met Teresa DePineres, a med student from the Southwest. Now 31, DePineres was a legislative aide for the American Medical Association and was intrigued by the idea of creating MSFC. "I am a woman of color, and it was obvious that the women not getting access to health care looked just like me," she says. [P] Another cofounder was Hillary Kunins, 36, who comes from a line of activist women. Her grandmother fought for unions; her mother for education. "I learned early on that women could be strong and we had rights," says Kunins. After college in the New York City area, where she grew up, Kunins became a counselor at an abortion clinic. When a bomb was planted at her facility, Kunins knew she too had to make a choice. In helping women make tough decisions the clinic was providing a valuable service, she believed. But she and the other counselors had to ask themselves whether they wanted to keep on. "Our answer was, 'Of course,' " recalls Kunins. [P] This fall all three doctors are finishing residencies. DePineres and Steinauer are practicing obstetrics and gynecology at women's health clinics. As the parent (with her male partner) of a toddler girl, Kunins, an internist for a drug-abuse clinic, feels more strongly than ever about defending women's options. "Should it ever be her need or choice," she says, "I want my daughter to have what I had—access to a safe, legal abortion." [P] Claudia Glenn Dowling [BR] Karen Grigsby Bates in the Bay Area [P]
  • Contributors:
  • Karen Grigsby Bates.