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Doctors are stepping into political arenas across the country over reproductive rights

“As doctors, it is absolutely imperative that we share our stories and put ourselves in front of our communities, so that they can elect leaders who have shown that they will be there for everyone in their time of need,” a doctor running for office in Pennsylvania said. 
Dr. Arvind Venkat, right, campaigning in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Arvind Venkat, right, campaigning in Pennsylvania.Courtesy Dr. Arvind Venkat

Spurred by the fall of Roe -- and the ongoing Covid pandemic -- more doctors are considering or launching runs for state and local political office, seeing their expertise as critical to fighting medical misinformation and depoliticizing medicine, physicians and organizations that recruit them to become candidates said.

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is the latest in a “series of assaults” on patient rights that doctors have opposed over the last several years, said Dr. Dona Kim Murphey, the vice chair of Doctors in Politics, a political action committee formed in 2020 that supports and recruits doctors to run for office. But as it forces some physicians to navigate newly restrictive patient care and leaves others unable to do their jobs for fear of criminalization, it has become a deciding factor in whether to run for office.

“Doctors are stepping back and recognizing all of the harm that has been perpetrated over the last several years by people who don’t understand the implications for health and well-being for individuals or communities or for our democracy,” she said.

Murphey said her organization has ramped up efforts over the last year to identify doctors who would be good in roles from Congress to local school boards, which can make decisions about whether and how schools teach sex education. 

The group has amassed more than 110 candidates, mostly women from communities of color, considering a run for office, she said. Reproductive rights are a motivating factor for many of them, she said. 

The fall of Roe was the “nail in the coffin” for Dr. Tina Shah, a pulmonary and critical care physician who worked as a White House fellow in both the Trump and the Obama administrations. Shah, a registered Democrat, is now considering a run for a congressional seat in New Jersey.

“The implication of Roe v. Wade, there’s a whole piece on reproductive rights, but it has an even larger implication that says who controls medicine and medical decision-making and this was a big step backwards.”

Shah, who is being supported by 314 Action, a political action committee pushing to elect more scientists to office, hasn’t decided when she will run. Abortion remains legal in New Jersey, where she lives, but she thinks she could still make an impact at the federal level. 

Dr. Tina Shah.
Dr. Tina Shah. Courtesy Tina Shah

“I could help strengthen what’s happening in our state, but also take this on the national level,” she said. “Because just like when we think about civil rights and the Voting Rights Act, there are some cases in our country’s history where we need strong federal action, and I believe we’re at yet another one with reproductive rights again.”

It is not usual for doctors to inhabit the halls of Congress. Currently, there are 18 medical doctors in the House and the Senate and at least 75 in state legislatures, according to the National Council of Physician Legislators, a nonpartisan physician-led group that tracks physicians in political office. 

Historically, doctors have received favorable public perception, making them strong candidates. According to 2020 Pew Center research, 72% of Americans said they had a mostly positive view of medical doctors and 35% of U.S. adults said medical doctors had very high ethical standards, up from 23% in a 2019 survey.

“Physicians are among the most trusted professions among Americans and that does extend to their credibility on issues beyond just their sphere of expertise because they’re looked at as truth tellers,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action. “You don’t go to a physician because they’re going to tell you ‘You look great’ — you go to them because they’re going to tell you what you need to do to keep yourself and your family safe.”

314 Action, which is aligned with the Democratic party, has spent millions of dollars on political research, strategy, and advertising over the last year on science candidates, including doctors. The organization said it’s creating a pipeline for doctors and other medical and science professionals to get into political offices. 

The organization said it has seen a significant bump in interest from not only physicians but also other STEM professionals in the last two years.

In 2020, the organization issued 187 state legislative and municipal endorsements, a spokesperson for the organization said. This year, it has already issued 196 endorsements and said will likely endorse at least 45 more candidates in the coming weeks.

Doctors running in coming elections could see more of an uphill battle than their predecessors, as negative perception of and hostility toward doctors have grown during the pandemic along with misinformation on topics like vaccines.

That has not deterred Dr. Megan Srinivas, an infectious disease doctor, who is running for a  spot in the Iowa House as a Democrat. 

“From a very basic standpoint, medical doctors can bring actual facts into the conversation so that people can have the correct information before making deleterious policies that are based on falsehoods,” she said. “We can provide a perspective that somebody who has never been in an exam room cannot provide, and we can put a face to the stories and understand the truth behind these difficult decisions, and it’s those experiences that will create better policy.”

Dr. Megan Srinivas
Dr. Megan Srinivas campaigning in Iowa.Greg Hauenstein

Srinivas, whose campaign preceded the fall of Roe, said the criminalization of medical care through abortion bans still has been concerning for her because hospitals are already facing a staffing shortage and jailing doctors could put a greater strain on patient care. Thirteen states have enacted laws making it a felony to perform or aid in an abortion.

“We’ve all taken an oath to do whatever we can to help our patients, and there are situations where the patient’s life will be at risk if they don’t have an abortion,” she said. “But at the same time, if a state outlaws that and threatens my license, I won’t be able to help the other 1,000 patients on my roster. So, it’s going to create a lot of ethical conflicts and I don’t know how we’re going to sort through it as a profession or as individual physicians.”

Abortion is still legal in Iowa, where Srinivas lives, but reproductive rights are still at risk in the state after its Supreme Court found that the right to abortion is not protected under the state Constitution. 

Dr. Arvind Venkat, an emergency room physician, is running on the Democratic ticket for a seat in the state House to represent an area outside Pittsburgh, in the hope of blocking an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would dramatically restrict abortion.

Republican legislators have advanced a constitutional amendment that would change the state Constitution to say that it does not guarantee the right to an abortion. If the measure passes the body again, it could go to voters next year.

Dr. Arvind Venkat, center, campaigning in Pennsylvania.
Dr. Arvind Venkat, center, campaigning in Pennsylvania.Courtesy Dr. Arvind Venkat

“Reproductive rights are going to be decided on a state-by-state basis now and Pennsylvania is ground zero for that,’’ he said. While his campaign for office began months before the Supreme Court overturned Roe, the attacks on reproductive rights had been long coming, he said. 

Venkat treated a woman years ago who had induced her own abortion and came into his emergency room bleeding profusely with an aggressive infection. She was from a country where abortion was outlawed and likely didn’t know it was legal in the United States, he said. The incident stayed with him and serves as one of the reasons why he’s running, he said. 

“As doctors, it is absolutely imperative that we share our stories and put ourselves in front of our communities so that they can elect leaders who have shown that they will be there for everyone in their time of need,” he said. “A background and expertise in medicine is particularly valuable in this time, both as we hopefully turn the corner on Covid and as we address other public health threats, like the threat to abortion rights and issues of gun violence, all of which have a public health perspective.”