Contraception. 2017 Jan 25. pii: S0010-7824(17)30013-6.

"She's on her own": a thematic analysis of clinicians' comments on abortion referral

Homaifar N, Freedman L and French V


Objective: The objective was to understand the motivations around and practices of abortion referral among women's health providers.

Methods: We analyzed the written comments from a survey of Nebraska physicians and advanced-practice clinicians in family medicine and obstetrics-gynecology about their referral practices and opinions for a woman seeking an abortion. We analyzed clinician's responses to open-ended questions on abortion referral thematically.

Results: Of the 496 completed surveys, 431 had comments available for analysis. We found four approaches to abortion referral: (a) facilitating a transfer of care, (b) providing the abortion clinic name or phone number, (c) no referral and (d) misleading referrals to clinicians or facilities that do not provide abortion care. Clinicians described many motivations for their manner of referral, including a fiduciary obligation to refer, empathy for the patient, respect for patient autonomy and the lack of need for referral. We found that abortion stigma impacts referral as clinicians explained that patients often desire additional privacy and clinicians themselves seek to avoid tension among their staff. Other clinicians would not provide an abortion referral, citing moral or religious objections or stating they did not know where to refer women seeking abortion. Some respondents would refer women to other providers for additional evaluation or counseling before an abortion, while others sought to dissuade the woman from obtaining an abortion.

Conclusion: While practices and motivations varied, few clinicians facilitated referral for abortion beyond verbally naming a clinic if an abortion referral was made at all.

Implications: Interprofessional leadership, enhanced clinician training and public policy that addresses conscientious refusal of abortion referral are needed to reduce abortion stigma and ensure that women can access safe care.

Comment: Yearly, millions of unsafe abortions take place, many leading to disease, infertility or even death of the woman. To prevent this morbidity and mortality we need to take away the stigma, treat the woman with dignity and help her as much as we can. If a healthcare worker does not want to help with the abortion itself, she or he needs to do whatever is needed, so that the woman is sent to a place where she can be helped in the right way . (HMV)