Starting next week, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) will commence the first online course on abortion care that’s ever been offered by a U.S. school. The doctor who’s leading the class, which will be offered through the online platform Coursera, estimates that more than 3,000 people have already signed up for it.
Dr. Jody Steinauer, an associate professor in Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UCSF and the founder of Medical Students for Choice, decided to create the online class to dedicate more time to a topic that often gets overlooked in medical school.
“Both the clinical and public health contexts of abortion are often excluded from curricula in medicine, nursing, and other health professions,” explains the description of the online class on Coursera’s website. “In this six-week course, over twenty faculty from various institutions and multiple disciplines will place abortion within the context of public health and fill in the gaps left by its exclusion from mainstream curricula in health professions.”
A 2009 study found that a third of medical schools don’t talk about elective abortion at all during the first two pre-clinical years, and even some OB-GYN residency programs only offer abortion training as an outside elective. Partly thanks to the those gaps, this country faces a serious abortion provider shortage. Nearly 60 percent of abortion doctors are over the age of 50, and there aren’t enough new doctors being trained to replace them.
“Under pressure and stigma, more doctors shun abortion,” David Grimes, one of the leading researchers in the field of abortion care, wrote in a now infamous 1992 medical journal article entitled “Clinicians Who Provide Abortions: The Thinning Ranks.”
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Steinauer said she hopes her new course can help get to the heart of that issue. “I think that if we can inspire even a small portion of the people who take the course to take steps in their communities to increase access to safe abortion and decrease stigma about abortion, then we have been totally successful,” Steinauer said.
That could make a big difference for female patients who want to be able to talk to their health providers about the procedure. According to one recent study, 97 percent of OB-GYNs have had patients who have come to them for an abortion — but only about 14 percent of those doctors actually knew how to perform one.
It’s possible that Steinauer’s course will spark some pushback. There’s an ongoing debate over whether online classes are an appropriate substitute for in-person instruction — and, on top of that, new technology is often particularly controversial when it comes to reproductive rights. Telemedicine, the practice of allowing a doctor to video chat with a patient to prescribe a course of treatment, is becoming increasingly popular in the medical community but has been heavily restricted on the state level for administering the abortion pill. Conservatives have decried the practice as “robot skype abortions.” Only time will tell whether opponents of the medical procedure will also come out against robot skype abortion classes.