Rimsha Syed, NSRH’s Digital Outreach Coordinator, had a conversation with Megan MacDonald (she/her) about sexual and reproductive health, volunteering at a clinic as an escort, and how to sustain the longevity of advocacy in this space. Megan is halfway through the Accelerated Second Degree BSN program at Oakland University in Michigan and is establishing an NSRH chapter at the school. Once she is an RN, she plans to continue her education to become a Nurse Midwife.

Listen to the interview with Megan and Rimsha here:

Rimsha: Hi, Megan, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today and sharing your story with NSRH. I wanted to start by asking you to just tell me a little bit about yourself.

Megan: Sure. Thanks so much for having me. My name is Megan, I use she and her pronouns. I live in Michigan currently, and I'm attending an accelerated nursing program. So this is my second degree. I actually was a massage therapist out in California for a number of years after my original undergrad degree, but have just always felt drawn to working with reproductive health. And so I'm on the first part of a long journey to becoming a certified nurse-midwife. So this is just the first step, but that's where I'm hoping to head.

Rimsha: Yeah, thanks for sharing that with me. In your story, you share that you actually volunteered as a clinic escort. I wanted to hear a little bit about how that went, what the day-to-day was like, the key takeaways, what you learned, and what you might have been frustrated with - anything you want to add to that?

Megan: Yeah, sure. I was trying to think, as I was writing out my story, how I got connected with that volunteer opportunity. It's been like 10 to 12 years now, since I did that, or since I started doing that. I think it was just someone mentioned, "Hey, I volunteer for this clinic, you should try it." And I did. I fell into it like that. And once I was there, I think it was something that I was really kind of nervous about doing. I grew up in, I wouldn't say a conservative area, but here in Michigan, there's plenty of differences in opinion, let's say. And so I was aware of the fact that there would be a lot of heightened attitudes toward me engaging with an abortion clinic in anyway. I was worried about what the protesters would be like, I was worried about if I was going to be engaging with the people who are going to the clinic, like in their vulnerable and emotional moments, and feeling unprepared for that. So I guess I was just kind of nervous going into it. I will say that once I got there it was just very simple. I say that because I think the thing that still sticks with me is just how simple it was what we were doing. All we were doing was meeting patients for the clinic at their cars, and walking with them to the front door. So it truly couldn't get easier than that. And yet, it felt like such a powerful, almost a burst of action in a way. Because the reason why we needed to be there was because we had a 24/7 presence in front of the clinic. This was in downtown Cleveland, where I went to college. And there was a regular group of protesters that would show up mostly on the weekends, the clinic had limited hours. So it was mostly on the weekends that the protesters were there and that was when our shifts were as well. I think the program had been started because the patients were self-reporting feeling really unsafe. And part of that was because there were, so you know the laws make it so that the protesters aren't allowed to come on to clinic property, but there was a particular protester who was kind of like the unofficial leader of one of the groups who was there. He was really aggressive verbally and also had taken to bringing a camera to record - to try to basically dox all the people who came to the clinic. So he would take people's pictures and then yell at them in a really aggressive manner that he was going to destroy their lives and post it online and make sure everyone knew that they were baby killers, basically.

So I guess for me, it was just like the level of vitriol and hatred that people were experiencing without the protesters having any idea of what was happening in these people's lives. There was no guarantee that the people walking into the clinic were there to get an abortion today. They would do this to anyone who came into the property, so the staff, you know, people who were there for checkup appointments, anything, anybody who came on they would do it. It was just kind of shocking to me how powerful that felt, I guess.

I knew they were not allowed on to the property. And yet, I still felt scared being there, just because of the level of aggression that was being displayed verbally. And I should say, I guess, at this point that there were multiple groups, and it was only some of the groups that felt really aggressive. There was also another group that I actually came to have really complicated feelings about, because all they would do is say rosaries, and walk in circles, and occasionally sing Ave Maria. And in a way that became kind of a ritual that we all took part in, in a weird way. I don't know, it's hard to describe. To me, they were expressing, I would say, they were protesting in a way that to me felt like I didn't agree with it. But they weren't actively causing harm in the way that some of the other protest groups were. Does that make sense?

Rimsha: Yeah.

Megan: So they were fine. And then it was the other ones. That's all just to say that our job was really just to greet people and say, "Hey, I want to let you know, there are some people out there that are going to be saying not nice things. I don't believe in that and I want you to know that. And I want to see if you would like some company as you walk up to the front door." The amount of relief that people experienced, I mean, obviously, there were some people that were like, "Nah, I'm good," and just walked in, shouted back, you know, whatever. But [for] a lot of the people, to see a friendly face in any way was really important. This is all just a very long way of saying that that is what got me so interested in this work. I think that this issue, nationally, the quote-unquote, issue of abortion, is so publicized and politicized and polarized that a lot of the times, even though, you know, the majority of Americans support access to abortion, when you are actually engaging with abortion, you are only engaging with the people who feel the most strongly about it. It just made me really aware of how important it is that if you support the access to abortion, if you support a person's right to choose what they do with their own body, then there has to be more than just the feeling behind that. There has to be action. Otherwise, it's drowned out by the people who care more than you in either direction. And so these people were showing up every week because the protesters were showing up every week because they cared so passionately about this issue. And I knew that there were other people who cared just as passionately from the other side, but they weren't necessarily showing up.

Rimsha: Right. Wow, that's a crazy story. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I guess, kind of going off of this, which you touched on a little bit, what does sexual and reproductive health mean to you personally?

Megan: I mean, I think it comes down to autonomy. For me, it doesn't matter what I believe about any of these issues, it doesn't matter what I would choose to do with my body, because that's my choice for my body. And I think that's a really overly simplistic way of looking at it. But I don't care if anyone else has an issue with abortion. I welcome you to have your own views on what you would and would not do with your body. So if you are someone with a uterus and you firmly believe that abortion is wrong, and you would not have one, that's great, go for it. Don't have an abortion. If you are someone who feels that abortion is wrong and you want to prevent other people from being able to have the choice of what they would like to do with their bodies, that's where I take issue. And truthfully I feel the same way about sexual health as well because I think that when we practice abstinence-only education, when we deny people the resources they need to make educated choices, when we deny people the resources they need to make safe choices, we're essentially doing the same thing. Right? So, to me, it's all about autonomy and the freedom to choose what you want to do with your own body.

Rimsha: Absolutely. And do you have any advice for people who want to sort of start advocating for bodily autonomy? Where can they start?

Megan: I mean, it's different in every area, right? I think the simplest thing is to just start speaking up because I do see, right now, that there are a lot of people I talk to, who, when I start talking to them, they let me know that they're pro-choice. But there's no way for me to know that ahead of time. I think people think of it as like a really personal thing and that is legitimate. But I guess I would just urge people, if you're at all willing, be open about the fact that you support bodily autonomy in all its forms. We're seeing that, especially with gender non-conforming folks and trans folks where you have people who are like, "Oh, yeah, I have no issue with trans people, but I'm not gonna say anything about it because I feel awkward about it or I don't have the, you know, I don't feel like I can make a difference." But then that means essentially that your support is never registered. So that's the simplest thing I think, is just be open about it, if you're in a safe position to do so. Beyond that, I know here in the Midwest, at least, there are a lot of clinics that have a lot of protesters. So for me, it was just a matter of calling the clinic and seeing if they had any sort of volunteer group to do what I was doing. And they did and they just looped me into their schedule. So it might be as simple as that.

Rimsha: Yeah, absolutely. And with SCOTUS' upcoming decision on Roe, how do you think that will sort of change things in your community or even for you, career wise? 

Megan: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I honestly vacillate between feeling really hopeful and feeling really unhopeful. So I'm going to decide that today is a hopeful day for the sake of this interview. I do think the one, I'm not gonna say advantage, but let's say maybe, a silver lining of this terrible position we're in is that I think it is forcing people to come out and fight for this. And so I hope that's what we see happen. I live in Michigan, as I've mentioned multiple times, our governor is currently working to try to make sure that the right to abortion is protected in our constitution. I know that that's not possible throughout all of the states. I do hope that we see for however much like wave of oppression is happening right now, I hope we see a corresponding wave of action and activism. It's hard though, I just don't know. I'm gonna keep working towards my future with the understanding that I will be able to be an abortion provider, that I will be able to work to protect my patients' reproductive health and protect their sexual health and provide gender-affirming care. And I think that's what you have to do is just assume that that will be possible so that you are motivated to keep taking steps towards making it possible if that makes sense.

Rimsha: Yep, absolutely. Make sense. I was also curious about, in terms of your formal education, to what extent have you received any information or training around sexual and reproductive health?

Megan: It's dire. I don't mean to be like defeatist, but I have been disappointed in what we've gotten so far in school. That being said, I have not yet made it to our OB class, which is, I think, where they wrap up a lot of sexual health and reproductive health, under the auspices or childbirth, which is in of itself problematic, but I'm hoping that I will be able to tell you something different once that class hits. For now, it's been a lot of things that don't quite hit the mark. And I will say that I do really believe that my professors are good people who care about these issues and just don't necessarily have all the information they need to be progressive about how they're educating the new generation of nurses. Because for the most part, we're taking classes from people who were in nursing school themselves, like at least a decade ago, in many cases, multiple decades ago. So, yeah, it's not quite ideal. That's actually what drew me to NSRH is working to establish a student chapter at my university. And we're hoping that we can kind of bridge the gap a bit and provide some trainings for our nursing students. But also we have a medical program, we have a PT program, we have all of these great medical training, training of healthcare workers in our school. So I'm hoping that we can kind of bridge the gap a bit for that.

Rimsha: Well, I'm so glad you brought that up, because my literal next question was about how you came across NSRH? And really, what does being part of this community mean to you?

Megan: I will say that, so I came across you through the feminist midwife Instagram account. And I believe that she is actually one of your board of directors, right? 

Rimsha: Yeah

Megan: She’s incredible

Rimsha: Agreed

Megan: She posted about a trauma-informed care workshop that I think she was leading. And I was like, "That is what I want. How do I get involved with whatever that is." And I will say that being involved in this community, I'm still in the early stages of being involved in this community, but it has brought me so much hopefulness as I start this career. Because I think it's really easy to feel like you are alone in caring about this stuff, especially if people aren't outspoken in your community. It is really powerful to have examples of people who are doing this work and who care deeply about this work, and are making it happen despite all of the obstacles against us. That to me is priceless, truly. And the other cool thing that's happened is in starting to try to start this chapter, sorry, in trying to start this chapter, I have learned more about my classmates and the people at my school. And it's kind of brought people out of the woodwork who I had no idea cared about this. So it's helped me feel like I have a smaller community as well as this larger national community, which is amazing.

Rimsha: Yeah, love to hear it. And I also wanted to ask, sort of in a different note, what is something that you find healing? Or how do you take care of yourself so that you don't burn out when being engaged in this work that can definitely be very heavy and very taxing at times?

Megan: Such a good question. Thank you for asking that. Because I really think we all need to be centering that and not self-care in the bubble baths way, but in the, "How can we ensure the longevity of our activism.?" It's a moving target. I'm still trying to figure it out. Nursing school is very busy. My number one thing is just being outside in nature and I feel like that kind of helps me do a zoom out and refresh. Beyond that, I do think that you kind of have to be able to vent about the difficulty of all of this sometimes. So having people that you trust who you know share your values, that is also instrumental for me. 

Rimsha: Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing that. And my last question today is if you were to highlight something that you're most proud of so far, in your schooling or your advocacy, what would that be?

Megan: Interesting question. You know, I think something I'm proud of is that I have made a concerted effort to carry the things I truly feel passionately about and the things that resonate deeply in my heart. I've really made it a priority to carry those with me, regardless of what my career is, and regardless of what my larger community is doing or saying or thinking. And obviously, I have very mixed success on that sometimes. Sometimes, you know, you feel like you're banging your head against the wall or it gets dropped and you have to pick it back up. But I do think that it would be very easy. And no shade at all to people who just need to get through nursing school, who just need to like get through paying their bills, they need to live in this wild capitalist society that we're all enmeshed in, that's totally legitimate. I think sometimes I feel like it takes an extra push to do all of that, while also doing hard work that matters. And I'm not trying to say that I always do hard work that matters, but I do think I'm at least laying the groundwork for where I want to go even while doing other hard things. And to me that is, you know, obviously, that's not all of it, but I think that's the first step.

Rimsha: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Megan. I'm gonna go ahead and stop the recording.

Megan: Cool. Thank you so much.