This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning Roe v. Wade and reversing nearly 50 years of legal precedent. Even as we reaffirm our commitment to respecting differences in individual opinions and beliefs across our diverse community, this ruling is deeply concerning for all of us who spend our lives and careers supporting safe and equitable medical care.
I write to you today thinking of our clinicians, the many caregivers in our institution, and the patients who rely on us to be there for them. Columbia has a long history of providing the full breadth of reproductive health services to our patients and supporting the research and education that will strengthen these services in the future. Though we are fortunate to have state-backed protections in New York, today’s ruling reveals how rights can be disturbingly fragile. As an institution we bear a special responsibility for leadership in this moment; our values of patient autonomy, privacy, and equal access to medical care will continue to guide us through this challenging period.
There are many among us who have shown this leadership in the past and I know they will continue to show us the way forward now. Dr. Mary D’Alton, chair of our Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and a longtime advocate for reducing maternal mortality and morbidity in the U.S., expressed her concern about the impact this ruling will have on maternal health. Nearly half the states will now face almost total bans on what can be a life-saving procedure. Today our nation embarks on a course unlikely to decrease the number of abortions performed but certain to decrease the number of abortions performed safely.
Women will bear this burden, and women of color and those living in poverty will bear the most of it.
Dr. Carolyn Westhoff, a longtime Columbia faculty member who has been fighting for reproductive rights and women’s health equity for decades, was instrumental in making Columbia one of the first institutions in the country to offer family planning fellowships providing post-residency training in contraception and abortion. Along with the late Dr. Allan Rosenfield, she also helped introduce abortion and contraceptive education into our medical school curriculum. The vision and commitment that Dr. Westhoff has demonstrated over the decades provides a template for our course ahead. Dr. Westhoff recently shared with me that there are conversations going on every day across the country, discussions centered around a simple question: As the law continues to change, how can we still care for our patients?
The answer is that we will find a way.
Dr. Paula Castaño, our interim division chief of Family Planning, urges us to redouble our efforts in support of those most affected by this ruling: trainees, disadvantaged patients, and colleagues in affected states. I share this commitment to using Columbia’s leadership to support those far beyond our community.
There is understandable worry in some quarters that this decision is a precursor to further attempts to erode reproductive freedom and patients’ rights to healthcare aligned with their own values. Our commitment to the health and well-being of our community is demonstrated by our actions. Dr. Ana Cepin, Director of Community Women’s Health and a member of our Family Planning division, leads services we make available in Washington Heights and Northern Manhattan-regardless of the ability to pay. Dr. Cepin’s work, and that of other faculty members, are a testament to our mission and our resolve.
Finally, I urge you to keep in mind these wise words from New York Health Commissioner and VP&S alumna, Dr. Mary Bassett, who recently shared with Elle Magazine her personal story of terminating a pregnancy: “Every woman, every girl, and every human being must intrinsically know that their health, their choices, and their life-as they choose to live it-holds inordinate value to all. Until then, there is work to do.”
There is indeed more work to do, and I am grateful to be part of this community at this consequential moment.
All my best,
Katrina Armstrong, MD
Chief Executive Officer, Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons