'I Was Anti-Abortion, Then I Began Performing Them'

After spending most of my life believing abortion was a sin, I performed my first one in September 2007 as an obstetrician-gynecologist (OBGYN) intern. I remember the exact date because it also happened to be my birthday, and the significance of those two events coinciding was not lost on me.

Only a few years earlier, I had been sure having or performing an abortion meant I would go to hell. My teen parents had been determined that I wouldn't follow in their reproductive footsteps. They placed me in Catholic schools, taught me that sex before marriage had to be avoided at all costs, and encouraged me to become a doctor. To them, this was a profession that meant success and stability.

I attended a Catholic elementary school where I was the only child pulled out of my fourth grade sex education class. Ever the good girl, I then chose to attend an all-girls Catholic high school on Long Island. There, I promised to abstain from sex, believed masturbation was a sin, and bought into what my school taught me: we girls could be anything and have any career, so long as we remained pure and followed the rules.

Dr.Jennifer Lincoln is An Abortion Rights Activist
Dr.Jennifer Lincoln is an OBGYN based in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Jennifer Lincoln

My tenth grade Theology class textbook was called "Morality." I will never forget the sweet elderly nun who taught us that premarital sex would leave us used up, pregnant, and with an STI. Thus, it was best to not tempt our boyfriends and avoid "compromising situations." Of course, I got an A in the class.

When I was assigned to write a persuasive piece in a different class, I chose the topic of abortion. I dove into my research in the school library and was horrified when I found books with photos of aborted fetuses, although I should note that pre-internet, the research I found was rather one-sided. This only solidified my belief that abortion was murder.

After thinking it ridiculous that I had to attend a seminar on birth control and staying safe at freshman orientation, I made it two years into college before having sex. I relied on condoms (sometimes) until my period was late. I wasn't pregnant, but it was the wake-up call I needed to get on birth control. I went to a local county clinic and will never forget the shame I felt as I walked out with a bag of pills thinking everyone would know just what kind of girl I was.

But it wasn't until I started medical school that I saw first-hand the despair caused by unplanned pregnancy. Many times the women involved had experienced poverty, violence, and sexual assault. I was starting to see a lot of cracks in the story I had been sold about purity and abortion and "the rules."

I began to reconsider my view that abortion was a sin. The real sin started to feel, to me, like thinking that abstinence-only education helps young people make good choices about their bodies. I started to believe that religious beliefs should not be extrapolated into legislation that controls another human's body.

I left medical school wanting to become an OBGYN and certain that reproductive freedom was essential. I sought out my residency training program, Oregon Health and Science University, because of their excellent access to elective abortion training. This sadly varies widely in the U.S., with many programs offering no training in elective terminations.

Dr.Jennifer Lincoln is An Abortion Rights Activist
Dr.Jennifer Lincoln at an abortion rights rally in Portland, Oregon in May 2022. Lincoln grew up with anti-abortion view, but now supports abortion rights. Dr.Jennifer Lincoln

So how could it be that when it came to the moment of performing an abortion in 2007, I was so conflicted?

As I scrubbed my hands, got gowned and gloved, and sat on the stool to begin the procedure, I felt somewhat out of my own body. Was this actually happening? I was doing it—in a surprising parallel, I had many of the same thoughts as when I had sex for the first time—but was I really going to be OK with this identity?

At the completion of the case, I ducked into an empty operating room and let all the emotions—those I had forced out of my brain during the procedure itself—wash over me. Was I a fake for saying I was pro-abortion when I found my first one to be so emotional?

After a few deep breaths, I realized that I was normal and that none of this was about me. The freedom I had given that patient was what mattered and overtook any momentary internal conflict I entertained. Years later, I've also come to realize overcoming purity culture is hard. When your formative years boiled down your entire worth to whether or not you've had sex, it's not a quick unraveling.

I am now an outspoken advocate for reproductive rights, most notably on my social media platforms, where I discuss topics like abortion, birth control, and more daily with more than 3 million followers. My mantra is that education is empowering and in talking about these topics, we break down the shame and stigma that many of us—including me—grew up entrenched with.

I realize people might think it odd that I work for a Catholic hospital system. A girl who grew up embracing Catholicism's stance on everything and who then rejected it all now finds herself employed by a Catholic organization that does not offer elective abortions.

I know it would be easier to work for an organization that embraced the same views I hold. But I also think it's important that doctors like me exist in spaces like Catholic hospitals and clinics so we can be there to ensure our patients get the objective counseling they deserve, regardless of where they get their care.

Since that day in September 2007, I've performed hundreds of those procedures, all without the internal conflict of that first case. Reproductive health advocacy is a core part of who I am.

Would the sixteen-year-old version of me be shocked if she saw who I've become? Definitely. But I'd tell her that it's OK to change our minds about positions we hold when we realize we were only ever given one side of the story.

I'd like to think she'd enjoy my TikToks, and would even learn a little something from them.

Jennifer Lincoln, MD, is an OBGYN based in Portland, Oregon and founder of ThreeForFreedom.com. Her book Let's Talk About Down There: An OB-GYN Answers All Your Burning Questions without Making You Feel Embarrassed for Asking is available to order here. You can follow Dr. Lincoln on TikTok @drjenniferlincoln.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.