At Women's March: Widespread Fear of Losing Access to Care

Alicia Ault

January 21, 2017

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of thousands of men and women took to the streets of Washington a day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, protesting everything from his election to his cabinet picks to what they fear will be attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, same-sex marriage, and access to healthcare, including contraception and abortion, under a Trump administration.

Marchers also came together to support equality for women on all fronts and proclaim their democratic right to assemble. The Women's March on Washington coincidentally came one day before the 44th anniversary of Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

A number of physician organizations — including Doctors for America, Physicians for Reproductive Health, and Physicians for Social Responsibility — joined the fray. Marchers and protesters — who were primarily white, but included men and women of color, as well — spread across dozens of blocks around the National Mall and downtown Washington. A handful of counterdemonstrators were evident, in one place close to the end of the planned route — near the White House.

Late in the afternoon of January 21, the organizers of the Women's March said they believed that as many as 500,000 people participated, "dwarfing Friday's inaugural crowd," the Washington Post reported. President Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, today said that the news media underestimated the number of people at the National Mall for the inauguration, the New York Times noted.

So many people gathered in the vicinity of the march's starting point at 3rd and Independence Avenue, NW, that many thousands were not able to squeeze through concrete and high-fence barriers leftover from the inauguration — that essentially penned people in on the Mall — forcing them to join in wherever they could find an opening later along the approximately two-mile-long route, or to disperse and create separate mini-marches.

Doctors Feel Urgency

"Right now, women's health is in greater danger than it has been at any time in the last 3 or 4 decades," said Kyle Ragins, MD, a board member of Doctors for America (DFA), who was coordinating 100-plus DFA physician-members who marched in their white coats. Dr Ragins, an emergency resident at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Medscape Medical News that he and his colleagues wanted "Congress and the administration to see it's not just a bunch of wacky liberal hippie people out here — it's doctors who see the benefits every day" — benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and access and coverage for contraception and other women's health services.

Isabel Chen, MD, a family physician who was marching with DFA, said she was participating because, "I feel very deeply and strongly that healthcare is a basic human right." And, she told Medscape Medical News, "it isn't strictly about access, it's about actual healthcare."

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America — which Republicans have said they want to defund as part of the repeal of the ACA — was a major sponsor of the march.

"Today we're here to deliver a message — we're not going to take this lying down," said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, in a rally before the march started. "And you better believe, we're here to fight for reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortion," Richards said.

Jodi Magee, the chief executive officer of Physicians for Reproductive Health (PRH), which was also a sponsor of the march, said she was participating with a number of physicians who the organization has trained to be advocates.

Magee told Medscape Medical News that a major theme of the march was "the right of women to be empowered to make their own medical decision in consultation with their doctors and their medical providers."

She said those providers also needed protection, noting that PRH has seen an uptick in harassment against clinicians since the election in November, and that the organization is concerned "that people who disagree about access to abortion will be emboldened to make further efforts to harass abortion providers."

Women Say They're Fearful

Women interviewed at the march said they were participating out of concern of what might occur under a Trump administration.

"When I have daughters, I don't want them to have to be out here protesting," said Sophie Bernheisel, 18, who came in from the Washington, DC, suburb of Greenbelt, Maryland. She said she was especially concerned about access to contraception and abortion. "I think women should be allowed to get accessible abortions without judgment or without being told they have to wait until they're not able to get one anymore," Bernheisel said.

Andrea, a 34-year-old from San Francisco said she had come to the march because "I'm concerned about the way the government seems to be going." She would not give her last name, saying that she works for a large corporation that might not approve of her participation.

The San Franciscan said she has employer-based insurance but is worried that millions people will lose their health insurance, if the president and most Republican members of Congress follow through on their promise to repeal the ACA. "The Affordable Care Act isn't perfect, but it gave a lot of people health care who didn't have it before," Andrea said.

"There are people that are going to die if they lose their health insurance and we can't have that happen to our countrymen," she said, adding that she hopes the march is "going to show people there are enough voters that care about these issues, including the Affordable Care Act."

Ellen Herz, 46, from Boston, said she "came to show that we as women are still cohesive and care for each other, and will support each other," and, "also for reproductive rights." Herz said she is worried that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v Wade. "The march will show the rest of the world how important this is to a lot of like-minded people," she added.

For Virginia Brooks, the march was "an opportunity for me to put my feet where my principles are," she said. The 70-year-old, who came to the march from Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Medscape Medical News she had never demonstrated before, "even though I grew up in the '60s and was really active in fighting for family and women's rights." Now, she said, "I think a lot of the things that I fought for in the '60s and '70s are at risk for women."

Brooks said she was involved in founding a Planned Parenthood clinic in northern Vermont in the 1970s, and she worried for the organization, and for the future of the ACA.

The law "has provided insurance for people who otherwise wouldn't have it, and to disassemble that with no plan in place is crazy," said Brooks.

Medscape Medical News sent a request for comment to the White House press office but had not received a response by press time.

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