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‘Abortion Is Winning,’ Says Medical Students For Choice’s Pamela Merritt

021021_provided_pamelamerritt.jpg Pamela Merritt Martha Stevens
Martha Stevens / Provided
At Reproaction, Pamela Merritt made protests, like this one targeting Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, part of her advocacy.

As the new executive director of Medical Students for Choice, Pamela Merritt works with medical student groups around the globe to ensure they have access to training in abortion and family planning. And the St. Louis resident has news for anyone depressed about the state of reproductive freedom in Missouri: Abortion is winning.

“One of the most exciting things about this new position to me is that I get a global context when I’ve been very much so focused on abortion access in the United States,” she explained on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “It’s amazing to see that abortion is winning, that access to abortion is something people are successfully advocating for from the grassroots.”

That assertion comes even as some activist groups (andtheir allies) declared Missouri the first state in the U.S. where abortions are no longer performed. Records show the sole remaining abortion clinic in the state did not perform any surgical abortions in December, although Planned Parenthood has insisted that was an anomaly.

But beyond the fact that most abortions previously performed in St. Louis are now being done just 17 miles away in Planned Parenthood’s new facility in Fairview Heights, Illinois, Merritt noted the increase in medication-based abortions, which no longer require women to be in the same room as their physician while terminating a pregnancy.

Bigger picture, even as legislatures like Missouri’s attempt a legal crackdown, Merritt said people’s hearts and minds show a different reality. That’s true in opinion polls in the U.S., she said, as well as overseas in countries that have tried to outlaw abortion.

“When you look at what happened in Ireland, when you look at the thousands upon thousands of people taking to the street in Poland, and obviously South America, just the wave of awesome grassroots organizing that’s happening … I just can’t look at that and not see that people understand and are passionately advocating for abortion access all over the world,” she said.

Merritt began her role with Medical Students for Choice on Jan. 1. She explained that her task will be helping advocate for students as they seek to make abortion training part of their medical schools or, in the case of universities that refuse to provide such training, get it elsewhere.

It may be a new role, but the cause is not. As co-founder of the reproductive justice nonprofit Reproaction and a former staffer at Planned Parenthood Advocates in Missouri, Merritt has made reproductive rights her focus for more than a decade.

She explained that her interest in the issue began not with an unwanted pregnancy but with a desperate desire to give up any future pregnancies. At 27, as Merritt suffered from fibroids and endometriosis, she was horrified to find physicians unwilling to give her the hysterectomy that would stop the pain. They were intent on preserving her fertility, even as she assured them she was eager to lose it. Their unwillingness to let her chart her own path was infuriating.

A few years later, in 2003, she moved back home to St. Louis after years of being focused on her career in Dallas. Volunteering for a local shelter for pregnant and unwed mothers, her interest in issues of reproductive rights intensified. After working in sales for the Vital Voice (and seeing her blog, Angry Black Bitch, go viral), she took a job at Planned Parenthood Advocates and took activism from a side job to her career.

Her work today is a continuation of her work for reproductive justice, a movement that goes beyond individual rights to the conditions that make it possible to have children, or not have children, in “safe and sustainable communities.”

“For Black women, and many women of color, pregnancy is a life or death consideration,” she said. “Reproductive justice forces us to center those Black women and say, ‘What do they need to have healthy birth outcomes? Does that mean midwifery? Does that mean they might need to have an abortion because they’ll have a stroke, or a heart attack?’ And to center them so that we are addressing their community, whether they live in a place where they can have healthy food, centering that at the same importance that we center their access to birth control.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.