Reproductive Rights and Women’s Health – What Nurses Should Know
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“For 50 years, we’ve been able to decide by ourselves, with our healthcare provider, and our loved ones on how to care for the pregnancy or to decide to terminate the pregnancy for any reason. But now we’ve lost the woman’s agency to decide for herself.”Dr. Maureen Fagan, Women’s Health and Family Nurse Practitioner
In June 2022, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that shook the nation and took away women’s right to privacy in reproductive decisions. The Dobbs v. Jackson verdict overturned the long-standing Roe v Wade decision that granted this autonomy to women across the country.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), consisting of over 57,000 women’s health physicians, states that abortion care is essential to women’s healthcare. Unfortunately, many women no longer have access to comprehensive reproductive care because of laws written by conservative politicians instead of knowledgeable physicians. The lack of reproductive rights has created a difficult environment for women and nurses caring for patients at a very vulnerable time.
Even though this ruling is relatively recent, many nurses haven’t wasted time moving to places where they can provide comprehensive care. “I’ve seen a lot of nurses leaving restrictive states. They’re going to work in a state where they don’t feel threatened that someone will bring charges against them for doing their job. They are moving to states where the patriarchal establishment isn’t overtaking the healthcare of a whole constituency of citizens,” shares Dr. Fagan. “I’m also seeing young people going to college in states that are pro-abortion so that, heaven forbid, they need services, they’re not going to need to leave the state.”
Thankfully, some positive changes are happening that will help women continue to access reproductive care: “The two medicines you use in medical abortion will now be provided by CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart. Patients don’t have to come in to their doctor to receive their medication. They will be able to get a prescription and fill it at the pharmacy,” says Dr. Fagan. But even now, the availability of those medicines by mail hinges on future litigation.
Navigating the new reproductive rights and women’s health landscape can be incredibly challenging for new and veteran nurses. “We need nurses who will be strong advocates for their patients and their families and are willing to be brave. As a nurse, you need to be courageous,” says Dr. Fagan. “It’s something that you learn over time. You will learn to hold your ground and put your patient first.”
Keep reading to learn from Dr. Fagan the essential things every nurse should know about reproductive rights and women’s health.
Meet the Expert: Maureen Fagan, DNP, MHA, FNP-BC, FAAN
Dr. Maureen Fagan is a double-certified women’s health and family nurse practitioner. She has compiled a lifetime of work as a nurse, nurse practitioner, and specialist in reproductive health, emphasizing adolescent high-risk pregnant girls and women. She spent most of her practice in OB-GYN, using her expertise to provide patient-centered care.
After graduating with a nursing diploma from Albany Memorial School of Nursing and obtaining women’s health and family nurse practitioner certifications, she went on to achieve a master’s in health administration and a doctorate in nursing practice from Simmons College. Most recently, she was employed as the chief nursing executive for the University of Miami Hospitals and Clinics Health System.
Nurse Are Critical To Comprehensive Reproductive And Women’s Care
Doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners may be the ones who can make a diagnosis, prescribe medication, and perform a procedure, but they can’t adequately care for patients without the help of nurses. “Nurses are the ones who take care of the patients the longest. Because of this, they are always thinking about the pros and cons and the risk and benefits of a course of treatment,” says Dr. Fagan.
In her experience, most nurses working in this field in a hospital setting have a keen understanding of fetal development and gestation. They are constantly evaluating the health of the mother and monitoring if and when the fetus needs to be aborted or is far enough along to be born and cared for in the neonatal intensive care unit.
During this critical time, particularly with patients who are further into their pregnancy and have difficult decisions, many rely on their nurses to help guide them. “You need to know that you are making a memory for these families. For this patient, you’re making a memory at a critical time in her life. They will remember that you were one of the few people on the side of good that helped her advocate but also gave her space to make her decision herself and feel comfortable about that decision. That’s something that they will never forget,” shares Dr. Fagan.
What Reproductive and Women’s Health Nurses Should Know
How To Listen To Your Patient
The first thing that all nurses must do is carefully listen to their patients: “Most women have an idea of what they want to do. They might feel guilty that they’re putting themselves first, but they have to put themselves first just because it’s happening in their body,” says Dr. Fagan. “They might have other children that they need to continue to live for or any other number of reasons. They should have the agency as a woman to decide. The nurse is there to listen first and then to ask, ‘how can I advise you.’”
What Advocating For Your Patient Should Look Like
Once a nurse genuinely listens to their patient, it is their responsibility to ensure their wishes are followed. “As a nurse, you’re taught to advocate for your patient all the time. Advocacy when you are in a hospital often looks like speaking up for them, particularly if they can’t speak for themselves. You took care of them 12 hours a day for five days or two weeks or a month, so speak up for them about what they would want,” says Dr. Fagan,
When advocating for patients, nurses must remain impartial and follow the patient’s wishes as long as it is not contrary to medical advice. Many women in these incredibly difficult situations need someone to stand by them and help them fulfill their wishes. Nurses working in reproductive care and women’s health need a high degree of compassion and empathy to give women the space to make the choice they want and need to make.
Understand The Political Landscape
Dr. Fagan believes that nurses who work in reproductive and women’s care need to be up to date on legislation and politics in their state. “Keep up on who the legislators are in your state. Know who your senators and representatives are. How do they feel about a woman’s right to choose?” she says.
Nurses must call legislators, senators, and representatives to let them know that women and healthcare providers should be the only ones making decisions about a woman’s body.
“Go to marches. Every state celebrates Reproductive Justice Day. Planned Parenthood knows when all those marches are, so make sure you find out when and where it is and attend. As a nurse, you have to understand the political landscape now,” Dr. Fagan advises.
An excellent organization that nurses can join is Nurses for Sexual and Reproductive Health (NSRH). The mission of the NSRH is “to provide students, nurses, and midwives with education and resources to become skilled care providers and social change agents in sexual and reproductive health and justice.” Schools and states have chapters that students or practitioners can join to learn how to participate in marches, educate themselves about reproductive justice, and become politically active in this arena.
Where and How To Vote
Aside from giving patients the most compassionate care they can, the most important thing a nurse working in reproductive care or women’s health can do. “Do you vote? Are you registered to vote? Where do you vote? Do you vote ahead of time or at the polls? Let’s get granular, so you know what to do when the time comes,” advocates Dr. Fagan.