A group of Black, female medical students expressed outrage over an upcoming event hosted by Emory Medical Students For Life (EMSFL) in an Oct. 29 email to School of Medicine students and faculty.
The event, titled “Is Abortion a Black Issue?” was to feature anti-abortion speaker Toni McFadden, who is a Black woman, on Nov. 2. It was postponed until after the election by organizers but has not been rescheduled.
In a statement to the Wheel on Nov. 6, Executive Associate Dean of Medical Education and Student Affairs Dr. J. William Eley wrote, “The School of Medicine supports freedom of expression for all our students. After hearing the concerns voiced by fellow students, the student organizers of this particular event made the decision to postpone it.”
Organized by four students, the email garnered 41 co-signatures in which Black women medical students expressed disappointment and outrage over the decision to hold the talk. They accused EMSFL, an organization they say does not have Black women in its leadership, of spreading “malevolent falsehoods” and stressed that high maternal mortality rates among Black women is a more pressing issue that needs to be discussed.
“Rather than asking whether or not abortion is a Black issue, a more important and appropriate question is to ask what is being done to protect the lives of those of us who choose to give life, and more specifically those that are dying at the highest rate — Black women,” the email read.
Malik Nelson (23M), who is part of EMSFL’s leadership, declined to comment. The Wheel was unable to identify or contact other members of EMSFL’s leadership board despite numerous attempts.
The students wrote they felt an obligation as Black women to respond to the event invitation, as they saw it as an attempt to erase years of reproductive injustices committed against Black women, such as forced sterilization and forced reproduction.
“Free speech has always, and continues to be, used to protect whiteness and white supremacist narratives,” the students wrote. “It has always been used against Black and brown communities to silence them and to punish them for speaking truth to power. ”
Medical student Nishone Thompson (21M, 26G) felt compelled to sign on to the statement to counter the opinions of EMSFL’s board.
“It is outrageous that they want to dictate what women do with their bodies,” Thompson wrote in an email to the Wheel. “Furthermore, they claim to be ‘for life’ without any regard for the mindless killing of Black people or the imprisonment of young immigrant children. How could you be for life but not care about the lives that have been around for longer?”
The women also said EMSFL’s lack of Black female leadership also led them to oppose the event, which covers both Black and female issues.
“For Emory Medical Students for Life, an organization that does not have any representation from Black women in its leadership, and whose leadership team is comprised of those who have publicly condoned and excused sexual assault — to hold such an event exposes the misogyny, sexism and racism that exists within our student body,” the students wrote. “This group does not speak for us.”
In an Oct. 29 email to Eley, the Emory Medical Alliance, Emory Medical Students for Choice and Emory chapter of the Student National Medical Association addressed student concerns over the “unfounded and harmful claims” being spread by EMSFL.
“As members of the Emory community, we value open expression greatly,” the students wrote. “However, as medical students, we value patient health above all else. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation and anti-science rhetoric can cause serious and sometimes fatal consequences.”
The email referenced three articles from the national Students For Life website, which the groups believe spread falsehoods. The articles falsely claim that there is “no such thing as ‘safe sex’” and that abortifacient birth control — meaning birth control that induces abortion, such as oral contraceptives, intrauterine devices and hormonal patches — lead to higher rates of abortion.
“When unfounded and harmful claims are made by organizations supported by EUSOM [Emory University School of Medicine] student groups, we expect a response with accurate information to ensure our medical education remains uncorrupted,” the students wrote.
The students requested that the medical school administration issue a statement that expresses support for freedom of speech “balanced with information sharing that is evidence-based and truthful.” They also stated they would like to meet with leaders from the school to help with the writing of this statement.
EUSOM deans responded in a Statement of Values addressed to SOM students after meeting with the student organizations.
“Every person, regardless of their beliefs, ethnicity, skin color, sexual orientation or any other personal attribute, should be provided with the opportunity to receive comprehensive and high-quality healthcare,” the statement read. “And we must strive to improve reproductive care for women of color, a group that continues to be underserved.”
The deans acknowledged the harm caused by EMSFL’s proposed talk while also recognizing a respect for students’ freedom of speech. They also promised to continue these discussions of medical values surrounding reproductive rights first with class zoom meetings and then in small-group facilitated discussions.