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Talking With Reproductive Rights Advocate and Sex, Etc. Alum Sarah McNeilly

By , 19, Contributor Originally Published: January 23, 2024 Revised: January 23, 2024

Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade, access to reproductive health care in the U.S. has changed drastically. But 27-year-old medical student and former Sex, Etc. writer Sarah McNeilly is working toward not only reversing these changes but fixing inequities in the health care system as a whole.

Originally from West Windsor, NJ, Sarah graduated from the University of Chicago with degrees in Biology and Public Policy. She then worked in health care consulting for a couple of years before starting at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where she is currently studying to become a doctor. Sarah is also on the board of directors for Medical Students for Choice (MSFC), a national nonprofit that educates those in training about family planning and abortion.

I got the opportunity to chat with Sarah about her dedication to reproductive justice, her time at Sex, Etc. and the current challenges of pursuing a career in medicine.

Sex, Etc.: How did you find out about Sex, Etc.?
Sarah: I knew Susie Wilson, who founded Sex, Etc., as a mentor. She originally told me about it.

Sex, Etc.: What made you want to become part of the staff?
Sarah: At the time, I saw Sex, Etc.’s mission of spreading accurate health information by and for teens as something related to my ultimate goal of becoming a doctor. What I didn’t realize was how much reproductive health care would become my passion. I was interested in Sex, Etc. specifically because I had this feeling throughout high school that these issues were super stigmatized. Whether it be when my friends first started talking about their gender or sexual identity, contraception, having sex for the first time…these were all issues that we were navigating. I was drawn to Sex, Etc. because they were providing resources created by teens that were responsive to the needs of adolescents.

Experiences that people feel the most embarrassed about are really common human experiences most of the time.

Sex, Etc.: What’s something you wish you’d known about sex education before joining Sex, Etc.?
Sarah: I wish I’d recognized that the questions I was having and the conversations that felt taboo—how common it is to have those questions. Now, training to be a doctor, I am privy to a lot of private conversations. Experiences that people feel the most embarrassed about are really common human experiences most of the time. I feel very privileged to now be able to have those conversations, I only wish I’d had them sooner.

Sex, Etc.: When did you know you wanted to become a physician?
Sarah: Being a doctor is something I dreamed about when I was a little kid. I was drawn to the idea of helping people, but as I got older, I grew more interested in not only helping people but really taking care of communities as well. I started having these ideas around high school, which is when I got involved in Sex, Etc.…I had a particular interest in reproductive issues because they are so stigmatized. They really affect vulnerable communities, whether it’s the LGBTQ+ community, women or adolescents, in concerning but, in my opinion, fixable ways.

Sex, Etc.: Did you write any articles during your time at Sex, Etc. about these topics?
Sarah: Indeed, I did! My first article ever at Sex, Etc. was about birth control methods. It’s interesting to reflect on 10 years later because the work I was doing then is a lot of the same work that I’m doing now—getting out accurate, relatable public health messages. I love to write and it’s stayed with me. Now, I routinely write articles advocating for things like expanded abortion training for medical students or state-level policy changes. I credit Sex, Etc. for honing that skill early on.

Sex, Etc.: Why have you chosen to focus on family planning and/or adolescent medicine?
Sarah: This is a development that I came to more recently. I think the core of it is that I’ve always felt most at home when having conversations about reproductive healthcare. Starting my career at Sex, Etc. made me have a strong interest in reproductive health and public health, which I carried throughout college. During college I was involved in a lot of advocacy around sexual misconduct and violence. In my job, I was doing some work surrounding the maternal mortality crisis. [I realized] these interests all had a home in OB/GYN (obstetrics [taking care of pregnant people] and gynecology [taking care of the reproductive health of non-pregnant people].)

I’m trying to become a physician in a post-Roe U.S. Roe v. Wade was overturned during my first year of medical school. At the time, I was a leader of my chapter of Medical Students for Choice….I saw a massive unmet need and since I had been involved in these conversations for 10 years, I [wanted] to be engaged and leading these conversations among my peers.

Sex Etc.: In what ways have you seen health care changing since the overturn of Roe v. Wade?
Sarah: As a medical student in New York City, I live in a state, like many states in the northeast, that still has abortion protections. But it’s impacting the ways people think about their careers in medicine. When it’s illegal to provide abortions, it’s also illegal to learn how to provide an abortion, which makes it hard for peers around the country to do the work they ultimately want to do. A lot of doctors now have to face an increased burden of criminalization, where you can be punished by the law for providing lifesaving medical care that should be a human right for everybody.

Taking a step back, this is all happening in the context of a maternal health crisis throughout the U.S., [exacerbated] by the COVID pandemic. Restricting basic rights and basic access to care has scary consequences for patient health, public health and well-being more broadly.

Sex, Etc.: Is there anything you’re excited to see for the future of reproductive health care?
Sarah: Absolutely! I don’t think I could do the work that I’m doing if I wasn’t a huge optimist. There have been scary laws passed around the country. I also know and am inspired by so many people who are working tirelessly to change these kinds of systems. I firmly believe that all the rights that we have lost are going to be restored. People are organizing now in light of these human rights issues. [I] imagine a better and more equitable future for everybody. I would love to see a world where abortion care is free and accessible to everybody. That health care in general is free and accessible, [including] LGBTQ+ health care. When there are disparities like this it means there are a lot of places where we can make improvements. I feel lucky and inspired to be one of the people involved in that fight.

Sex Etc.: What challenges have you faced, if any, about pursuing a career in health care? What challenges do you see in the field?
Sarah: If you’re working in health care, especially if you’re focusing on social justice issues, it can be demoralizing. Watching bad laws being passed can be dispiriting. There is a real “leaking pipeline” in terms of who can make it into medicine. [For example,] the amount of financial burden it takes to become a doctor weeds out people who would be incredible doctors and diversify our workforce. There are many studies that show a more diverse workforce would lead to better health outcomes for patients.

As young people who are trying to change the way a system works, you’re always told, “This is the way things have been done.” or “You need to have been around the block a little more to know how to fix this.” These messages can be discouraging to folks who would bring new and fresh ideas to these movements.

Sex Etc.: We definitely have a long way to go but hopefully, we’ll start to see laws and the health care system improving.
Sarah: I hope so.

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