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Social stigma threatens reproductive health care access in rural Iowa
In rural Iowa, most health care services, including reproductive health care, are provided by general family practitioners, not by specialists within specific fields. Because many rural areas have a limited number of family practices to begin with, both providers and patients have specific privacy worries and concerns about the public perception of services offered. Women who need reproductive health care — from contraception to diagnostic tests to abortion — are too often left without access to the services they need.
According to the Abortion Access Project, which tracks access to reproductive health care across the country, many doctors who could perform certain procedures choose not to because of potential backlash from local residents who disapprove of abortion and related health services.
“One of the things we found through our survey project is that many general practice physicians who otherwise have the skill set to perform certain procedures such as first trimester aspiration abortion don’t do so because there is a feeling or a belief that doing so would create some sort of community backlash,” said Kathleen Lane, who works for the Abortion Access Project.
While abortion is perhaps the most controversial procedure within the field of reproductive health care, it is not the only one that is affected by small-town stigmas. For instance, young people in rural areas who wish to access birth control may be understandably uncomfortable talking about it with a doctor who could easily or inadvertently disclose what was said to parents or other relatives. There is perhaps even more stigma attached to young people who need treatments for sexually transmitted infections, which, if left untreated, can lead to serious health consequences including infertility.
“We know that all access is not created equal,” said Christie Vilsack, the former first lady of Iowa who is now executive director of the Iowa Initiative, a research organization that aims to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies across the state.
“One of the reasons the Iowa Initiative exists is that Iowa is 48th in access to reproductive health care services among the states. We are a research project that is spending the next 3 to 4 years finishing a five-year research program, and nearly everything we are doing is about access — especially access in rural Iowa. One of the reasons we are 48th is because we are a very rural state, and many of our smallest communities don’t have reproductive health care services available.”
Over the past year, the Iowa Initiative has administered a pilot program involving satellite clinics, which provide reproductive health care services to communities that would not otherwise have access to them. (When feasible, these clinics have been placed within existing medical facilities, such as hospitals and wellness centers.) The organization is also starting a test program that provides free long-term birth control to women. At the end of these test programs, the Iowa Initiative hopes to provide useful data to organizations across the country about how to successfully reduce unintended pregnancies, which cost taxpayers millions of dollars annually and are the largest factor contributing to elective abortions.
“It’s really important for people to understand that reproductive health for women is mainstream and no different than any other type of health care,” Vilsack said. “In many cases — and I think this is especially true in small towns — there is a perception that these services are taboo or something controversial when they aren’t at all. People have babies every day. Most everyone who has been sexually active has used birth control at one time or another. There’s nothing taboo about it, it is just a part of health care.”
The Iowa Initiative’s new rural satellite clinics are staffed with individuals who can provide information on the latest technological advances in family planning and who can tailor birth control options to individual needs and circumstances. The Abortion Access Project is tackling the problem in a slightly different way, working to help physicians who already practice in rural communities to be better prepared to meet the needs of women seeking reproductive health services.
“It’s true that there is a doctor drain happening in specialized services such as obstetrical care. But when we think about comprehensive reproductive health care services that include abortion and STI testing, these are not services that need to be provided only by specific doctors,” Lane said. “All of this perfectly fits into the scope of practice of family medicine. Years ago, before abortion and so much of these became hot-button political issues, women could go to their regular doctor for these services.
“There’s this whole aspect of continuity of care — of women being able to go the physician who knows their entire health history,” Lane said. “That’s the piece that is really missing for both rural and urban women.”