The Doctor Is In — And Wants You To Vote: How Physicians Are Saving Democrats After Roe
Dr. Anita Somani, an OB-GYN from Columbus, Ohio, never envisioned becoming a lawmaker.
But the Supreme Court’s recent rollback of the constitutional right to an abortion energized her to run for office, and she’s now hoping to become the first OB-GYN elected to the Ohio General Assembly.
Dr. Benjamin Abella, an emergency room physician from Philadelphia, wasn’t very politically active prior to this election cycle. Now, he’s worried about the status of abortion rights in Pennsylvania and is helping two Democrats trying to get elected to critical seats.
And Dr. Bich-May Nguyen, a family practice physician from Houston, Texas, has always been active in progressive causes that overlap with health care. But this year she’s seen a sharp increase in doctors following her lead and wanting to get involved.
“There is this perception that medicine and politics don’t mix, but the reality is that so much health care policy is determined by politics and who’s in office,” said Somani, who is deeply concerned about the six-week abortion ban that has become law in her state.
Following the high court’s reversal of its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision this year — which happened, not inconsequentially, in the heat of a pivotal midterm election cycle — doctors have emerged as some of the loudest voices for protecting abortion rights, particularly in swing states where November’s vote will determine the landscape for reproductive health care in the years to come.
For many doctors, this is just the latest escalation of a long-standing GOP war against science and health care, which dates back to at least the fight over repealing former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is this perception that medicine and politics don’t mix, but the reality is that so much health care policy is determined by politics and who’s in office.”
– Dr. Anita Somani, a Democrat running for office in Ohio
Abortion access has already been inspiring people to vote this year. Notably, Kansans showed up in force to reject a measure stripping abortion rights from the state constitution weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. And it remains the major issue of the midterms on the political left and among swing voters.
Polling shows that abortion access is a top concern for both Democrats and independents, while Republicans are more anxious about the economy and inflation. About 77% of Democrats and 58% of independents say they’re more likely to vote this year because of abortion, according to a September poll from Marist College, PBS and NPR.
HuffPost interviewed more than a dozen doctors who referred to the current political climate, which potentially impacts everything from contraception access to the skills that medical schools can teach students, using words like “terrifying,” “frightening” and “scary.”
“We need to know how to manage a miscarriage,” said Dr. Ann Steiner, an OB-GYN from Pennsylvania. “Women will bleed to death.”
Doctors across a variety of specialties — not just ones that deal directly with reproductive health — are worried about their patients, as well as their own ability to practice medicine without facing criminal charges or imprisonment.
“I think everyone’s terrified,” said Dr. Zeke Tayler, a critical care anesthesiologist from Philadelphia. “There are many [doctors] who have said they may have to move out of the state because it just might not be tenable to work here anymore as a physician. Because it’s not just abortion; health care in general is a political front right now for Republicans.”
And so doctors, not known for passionate displays of political activism or abundant free time, are doing what they need to do, when they can. Tayler is taking part in door-to-door canvassing on weekends. Abella, the ER physician, is cultivating an online following. Nguyen, the family doctor, is organizing fundraisers in her spare time and even registering patients to vote in the exam room. And physicians like Somani are running for office in what may be record numbers.
“Health care in general is a political front right now for Republicans.”
– Dr. Zeke Tayler, a critical care anesthesiologist in Pennsylvania
“Texas has been under the rule of one party for decades. And because that group has just become more extreme over the past few years, I’m hoping people realize how important it is for them to register to vote and turn out,” said Nguyen. Her state has some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the country, including a law that allows private citizens to sue abortion providers.
Somani, who won a Democratic primary in August, wasn’t only considering the national abortion climate when putting forward her candidacy, but it’s now a driving force in her campaign to become a state representative.
Since Ohio’s six-week ban went into effect, Somani said it’s even more critical for her to become a counterweight to the General Assembly’s pro-abortion GOP supermajority. Ohio Republicans are known for proposing extreme companion legislation to the state’s abortion law, including a bill that would force women to reimplant ectopic pregnancies — a procedure that, as Somani testified to the legislature, is not even medically possible.
“If I get to the statehouse as an OB-GYN, then I feel like I will be able to speak to some of these more egregious bills,” Somani said.
It’s not just Ohio that’s teetering on the precipice of more regressive abortion laws.
In Indiana, where a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio was able to receive an abortion that she couldn’t get in her home state (news that surfaced thanks to her doctor), an injunction has temporarily halted a near-total abortion ban amid a legal challenge.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who’s running for reelection against a staunchly anti-abortion Republican, Tudor Dixon, has been fighting the implementation of a 110-year-old law that would criminalize abortion. Michiganders, meanwhile, are also voting on a measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano, is a Christian nationalist state senator who sponsored a six-week abortion ban bill and wants stringent abortion restrictions. The GOP’s nominee for U.S. Senate in the state, Dr. Mehmet Oz, is a cardiac surgeon and former TV host who has flip-flopped on abortion since becoming a candidate. As a senator, Oz could be voting on whether to outlaw abortion nationally if the GOP snatches control of Congress next month.
As a result, a coalition of doctors has come together to help their Democratic opponents in the state: Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running for governor, and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, competing for the U.S. Senate seat.
Abella, one of the main organizers of the groups Physicians for Shapiro and Real Doctors Against Oz, said many of his colleagues were politically curious before the fall of Roe, particularly during the pandemic and when the ACA was at risk, but never to this degree.
“A lot of physicians have become very alarmed by what’s going on nationally regarding reproductive health and patient privacy, so many of us are getting off the sidelines,” he said.
Ironically, Oz, an anti-abortion Republican who has mocked his stroke-survivor opponent and peddled “miracle” cures for profit, is the most high-profile doctor running in 2022. Oz goes against everything that many doctors stand for, said Abella, who accused the TV host of “using his medical credentials like an ATM card.”
The 314 Action Fund, a progressive political action committee that boosts the candidacies of doctors and others with math and science backgrounds, has announced its largest cohort yet of endorsed candidates, all of whom are stalwarts for reproductive rights. (Oz is not among them.)
“A lot of physicians have become very alarmed by what’s going on nationally regarding reproductive health and patient privacy, so many of us are getting off the sidelines.”
– Dr. Benjamin Abella, an ER physician in Pennsylvania
“[Doctors] are one of the most trusted professionals, and we need them to think about how they can help the communities they serve from beyond the exam room,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, the president of 314 Action, which is backing over 400 candidates across the country.
Abortion is still legal up to the 23rd week of pregnancy in Pennsylvania, where the PAC made more than a dozen of its endorsements. In a state that boasts some of the nation’s top hospitals and teaching universities, anything more restrictive would have a chilling effect on medical specialties that overlap with reproductive health, doctors say.
“Here in Pennsylvania, abortion is still legal, and that’s why you’re seeing so much energy around Josh Shapiro’s election John Fetterman’s election,” said Dr. Val Arkoosh, a gynecological anesthesiologist who ran in the state’s Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and now backs Fetterman. “It’s an existential threat.”
The doctors who spoke to HuffPost said they weren’t especially concerned about alienating certain patients with their political views. (In fact, they were more worried about appearing to speak on behalf of their employers and asked HuffPost not to name those specific institutions.)
“Doctors may think: ‘My patients are Republicans and Democrats. I shouldn’t be on a side.’ But these aren’t really Republican and Democrat issues,” said Dr. Rab Razzak, a palliative care physician from Cleveland, Ohio.
“These are human health issues, and they’re becoming politicized. I think it’s our job to reframe this and to talk about what it really is,” said Razzak, who co-founded Doctors for America, a progressive nonprofit that aims to improve access to affordable health care.
Dr. Meena Bewtra, a clinical epidemiologist and gastroenterology specialist from Philadelphia, said she won’t talk to her patients about specific candidacies or issues, but she has no reservations about asking them if they’re registered to vote — sometimes as they’re about to undergo a colonoscopy.
“I’m like: ‘Have you gotten your flu shot? Have you gotten your COVID booster? Are you registered to vote?’”
– Dr. Meena Bewtra, a Pennsylvania physician, on her patient intake
“We’re not telling people who to vote for; it’s not politically affiliated,” Bewtra said. “It’s a part of democracy, and it’s part of my health care when I’m consenting patients for colonoscopies. And I love the response from them because they’ll start laughing. I’m like: ‘Have you gotten your flu shot? Have you gotten your COVID booster? Are you registered to vote?’”
While many doctors may not see it as their job to educate the public and their colleagues about women’s health, physicians like Dr. Lisa Harris, an OB-GYN from Michigan, view it as an extension of the oath they swore to care for patients.
Harris makes time to mentor colleagues and speak about her work, even while treating an influx of patients from nearby states like Ohio and Kentucky, whose stricter abortion laws send patients fleeing to more liberal areas for care.
“My whole career I’ve been writing and researching and speaking about abortion, and I knew I had sort of quiet, tacit support from physicians across a wide range of specialities,” Harris said. “But only after Dobbs has that support been not as quiet, with people actively reaching out and wanting to know what they can do,” she added.
“Abortion touches every part of the health care system,” Harris continued. “We don’t think of it that way, though, when abortion is conceived of as politics and not health care.”