Story by: Blair Krassen and Jessica Washington
After a 2021 of constant assault on the bodies and rights of women, the need for candor in health, courage in legislation, and insight in care is crucial. DW has followed the abortion ban from its inception. Now, with cases looming in the Supreme Court, the need for guidance on how women can manage their health and wellness is even more pressing.
As seen on Today, Steve Harvey, The Real and more, OB/GYN and VeryWell Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jessica Shepherd speaks to DW about the issues that are important to the women of Texas and the Black community — such as finding the best OB/GYN, the racial disparity within healthcare and the abortion ban. We appreciate her willingness to speak so openly and unapologetically about these issues as well as provide resources to women seeking abortions.
Can you first start by saying the importance of OB/GYN care within the Black community. Is there a difference that you’ve seen in the care that women of color receive as opposed to White women?
As a board certified OB/GYN and board certified Black physician, there is a stark difference in the treatment of women of color in pregnancy to that of White women. What we have seen nationally through pregnancy, and also in the postpartum phase, is that there is a staggering difference in statistics that lead to increase in maternal mortality admission to ICU for babies and also in the postpartum phase care that women get — whether that’s with mental health care or with the care that’s needed as far as post partum complications that can come with postpartum hemorrhage, postpartum hypertension and gestational diabetes.
What are some of the main things women should be looking for when seeking out an OB/GYN?
When looking for care as a newly pregnant woman or [when] planning for pregnancy, it is very important to ensure that the relationship you have with your OB/GYN is one that advocates for you as a patient and allows you to voice your concerns, your opinions, your questions during the pregnancy phase.
It is also important to ensure that you get the access to care and the resources that are going to be needed during pregnancy. If there are any pre-pregnancy conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension, or any concerns that have preceded this pregnancy with previous pregnancies, it is important that you also get care with a high risk doctor and make sure that throughout the process, you are getting the best care for yourself as well as for your baby.
Other things that are important are the hospital that you choose to deliver in, ensuring that you get the care — whether that’s with an OB/GYN [or someone else] — that they have the credentials to deliver at the hospital you would like to deliver at. Also, having supportive care and staff during the delivery process — such as a midwife or a doula — which may assist with your delivery. Making sure that all of these are taken care of throughout the pregnancy and into the labor portion are very important and are key factors you should look for early in your pregnancy.
The medical industry has looked the other way when it comes to a lot of female care. Has there been any progress in the care for women in the medical industry that you’ve seen?
When thinking of medical care and the advances that we have seen over the last several years and even decades, it is quite clear that we have made some strides in improving access to women’s healthcare, and also the innovation in healthcare that we see that is devoted to women’s health. Women’s health has notoriously been disregarded or put to the backburner when we think of innovation, technology [and] studies that would include women.
So what we are seeing is that there is an increase in the actual women’s healthcare field, whether that’s with innovations, medications that are devoted to specific women’s health issues. Also improving the access that we have to women of color in studies and making sure that they have the access to care they need.
We have a long way to go when it comes to what we need in women’s health, but we are making strides. The other important factor is that we are seeing an increase in the number of women in medicine and this is going to improve the relationship between studies, between patients and physicians and also outcomes when we think of women’s healthcare.
According to Senate Bill 8 (otherwise known as the Texas Heartbeat Act), if the bill is to become a law, abortion will be banned after cardiac activity is detected, which is typically about six weeks in to the pregancy. Why is this a problem? Isn’t that enough time?
In May of 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that would ban abortion as early as six weeks, and in September of 2021, this legislation was not blocked by the supreme court, therefore allowing this law and this bill to take place. What we have seen is that this is going to significantly impact the 7 million women in Texas of reproductive age. Since Roe vs. Wade in the 1970’s, this was the ability for women to have the choice and the option when it comes to pregnancy and abortion and giving them the right that they deserve when it comes to their body. With this setback, what we will see is the access to resources and care [being taken away] when it comes to making the decision about what to do with their bodies.
What we will see is that this will significantly impact women and making the decision, be it a short time frame from pregnancy to realizing pregnancy at six weeks in order for them to make a decision for themselves. This presents many logistical, financial and legal barriers for women who do have to make this decision in that time frame, which is now at six weeks.
We have seen a lot of people saying they want to “take action” but don’t know how? In your opinion, what are some effective ways both women and men can take action to fight the passing of this law?
How we can get involved in a community when we see these types of barriers in the legal system is to continue to voice our opinions and our support in order to overturn these narratives that we have seen in the last few decades. Now it is ever so important to make sure that we sign petitions, that we vote for the people that are going to be in support of these decisions that we need to make long term. This means that when it comes to voting — whether that’s a two year term or a four year term, both local and federal and state positions — we have to make that commitment to who is representing us as a community, specifically for a community for Black and Brown people so that we make that impact by voting together.
Because of the barriers that we have seen with women being able to access the care that they need and to make decisions for themselves, I have taken that stance as a platform, as an OB/GYN, as a women of color, as a mother, and also in the positions that I have, such as as a Chief Medical Officer for VeryWell Health to provide people with the resources that they can use when they have obstacles or struggles with making decisions for themselves considering their health.
Making a health care decision is between a woman and her physician and in the case where this decision may be an obstacle in making that choice after six weeks with this bill, my job is to provide women with the access and resources so that they can get this termination or an abortion in another state, with another provider. It is very important that we find ways for women to get the care that they need and not limit their choices and their abilities in order to make the best health care decision for them.
In an interview you did for VeryWell Health, you said that even if this law goes into effect, it will not stop you from providing resources to your patients such as connecting them with an out-of-state provider. Do you believe it will be common for other doctors in your field to do the same?
As a physician, a woman of color, a woman that has taken the opportunity to provide resources for patients who have difficult decisions to make, but should still have access to those resources, this ban limits many women and patients in making decisions that are best for their health. In Roe vs. Wade in 1973 when it was considered unconstitutional to deny access to a woman to get an aboriton, this is what we’re trying to provide the access for and sustain this type of decision making when it comes to women. Now if that means providing resources for women to go to other states to physicians that are going to give them the care that they need, that is what we can focus on as a community, as physicians. Taking the stance to support and provide resources for women.