- With her Indian American heritage, her activism and her commitment to social justice, she is an important ally in the fight to let women have basic healthcare and the right to make their own decisions with their bodies.
Dr. Meera Shah may not be a doctor working in a war zone or in an area ravaged by a natural disaster. Yet, she faces danger to her life almost on a daily because of her profession. Shah is an abortion provider who has made it her mission to make access to abortions safe and legal, especially to low-income people and people of color. Every day at her job, she faces resistance from anti-abortion campaigners, as well as online vitriol. She often hears stories of abortion providers being threatened or even murdered.
But when one is resolute and passionate about one’s profession and the cause it serves, nothing can be a deterrent. It is these factors that make Shah, a 38-year-old Indian American, a force to reckon with. And don’t be fooled by her petite appearance, her docile nature, and her warm smile. They hide a tough and resilient spirit which helps her carry on with her mission.
Shah is a crusader for women’s right to choose. She even travels to provide abortion care for women who have limited access to it. Currently, the chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic in Hudson, New York, Shah goes to South Bend, Indiana, about once a month to perform abortions.
The two locations couldn’t be different. “In New York, where I live and practice, a patient can learn that they are pregnant that morning and soon after, that same day, they can have an appointment for an abortion,” she says. However, that’s not the case in other states. In Indiana, after a patient has been given all the options, including the possibility of keeping the baby to term, state law requires that the patient come back in 18 hours for the abortion. Despite the laws, Shah knows that there’s no abortion care if there’s no provider. The clinic Shah goes to is the only abortion provider in that area of the state.”
But if there is one thing in common in both New York and Indiana, it is the resistance. Almost every day, at both locations, Shah is met with anti-abortion protestors. Their presence doesn’t detract her from her job and her resolve. Her commitment and dedication to her work and her patients also give her strength to not engage with the pro-life campaigners. Shah inherently wants to see the good in others, and hence she lets them exercise their first amendment rights. But she knows that it’s a small population compared to the “over 70 percent,” who believe that abortion should be legal in this country. She also faces vitriol online. Some people leave comments on things she has published or send her unpleasant notes. “But a vast majority of people who reach out are strangers who appreciate the work I do.”
Child of the Bible Belt
And it is this gratitude and appreciation that gave courage to the young Indian American girl who was born and raised in the Bible Belt to speak about her profession. Shah not only grew up in a conservative part of the country, in Rock Hill, South Carolina but she was also raised by conservative Jain parents, who “didn’t really talk about sex.” Yet she chose a medical specialization different from her father’s and her friends and contemporaries. A profession that put her in the spotlight, for what she does in the clinics as well as outside it.
At the time when she was struggling to tell people that she was an abortion provider, Shah leaned into her faith — Jainism. When she reflected on the way she was raised, she knew she had made the right decision. “Supporting people and helping them exercise their autonomy is ethical, and the right thing to do.”
A Fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, Shah has a medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and a Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University. At Planned Parenthood, Shah specializes in sexual and reproductive healthcare as well as transgenic care for transgender and gender non-binary people. Along with being an abortion provider, she provides prenatal care and SRH [sexual and reproductive health] needs for anyone on the gender spectrum. Additionally, she is a national medical spokesperson at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Shah sees patients of all income levels, all backgrounds and cultures and races, and treats them all equally and with patience. “When somebody has a positive pregnancy test our immediate reaction as healthcare providers are to provide them with all the options,” she says. “Never assume that it’s happy news you are delivering – you always want to mirror your reaction to the patient’s reaction,” she adds. “All options and all choices are valid, and we honor them.”
For patients who are confused and need help making a decision, Shah provides them all the evidence, all the data around what an abortion entails. “I never make the decision for my patients — it’s not my job — but I encourage them to talk to loved ones, to seek support if they have somebody.” At times she guides them to a counseling group called Exhale or All Options – “where they can talk to patients who are like them – undecided – to know what’s right for them.”
Shah is a champion of reproductive rights, an activist, a counselor and an advisor. In a profile on Shah, The Washington Post wrote about her monthly travels to South Bend. It mentioned how her marriage last summer to Bart Consedine, a software developer, didn’t stop her from her travel. “She was back to her South Bend commute two days after her honeymoon this summer to see patients at a Whole Woman’s Health Alliance clinic.” Sometime late last year, when the Post story came out, Shah had to drive to South Bend when she missed her connecting flight from Chicago due to rain and winds.
Shah doesn’t have kids of her own yet and smiles as she mentions that she and her husband want to start a family soon. Her husband Bart is her biggest supporter, and so is her family. In fact, Shah gravitated to medicine because of her father. While growing up, she was able to witness his “unparalleled work ethic and his genuine desire to help those in need.” It was during her clinical training that a mentor guided her through this aspect of healthcare. It made her realize “how incredibly important and also how incredibly normal this is.”
Since then Shah has dedicated her life to changing the narrative around abortion. Together with her medical expertise, her Indian American heritage, her activism and her commitment to social justice, the Indian American is an important ally in the fight to let women have basic healthcare and the right to make their own decisions with their bodies.
As a woman’s right to decide what is best for their body has been challenged in many different ways, Shah feels like it is her responsibility to advocate for her patients. So she speaks out. Whether it’s protesting, advocating, speaking out, working on policy change, or lobbying on the Hill, she does it all. Although she’s a physician “first and foremost,” she quickly realized that politics and the restrictive laws have really gotten in the way of that.”
Advocacy and Activism
While a lot of her friends who are gastroenterologists or cardiologists, don’t have to do that, she acknowledges that advocacy and activism is a large part of what she does. “I do feel that it’s an ethical duty to just speak out. Because I know the truth of what happens in the examination room, I hear the stories of my patients and I know the realities of abortion care.” And yet she hears and reads about “all these myths and junk science around abortion care,” which strengthens her resolve “to want to help change that narrative to make it become something positive, which it is.”
Last year, Shah wrote a book, “You’re The Only One I’ve Told: The Stories Behind Abortion,” to illustrate the range of people who get abortions, counter the stereotypes about them, humanize abortion, and combat myths that persist in the discourse that surrounds it. The book was another way of advocacy for Shah. “I love to write and I thought this would be one other mechanism for bringing change,” she says, adding: “People have said that the book has been eye-opening,” and has made them understand the “simple facts” about abortion, that it is safe, and not a high-risk procedure “That in itself is destigmatizing — to reading understand that even the most basic facts about abortion that have been littered by the anti-abortion movement.”
Abortion is common, Shah notes, estimating that one of four women in the U.S. have had an abortion in their lifetime. Yet there’s a lot of stigma and shame surrounding it. “There are a lot of cultural nuances that go into somebody’s views on sex and abortion and unintended pregnancy.” And as a South Asian, Shah talks about it, and tries to normalize it. “I see patients who are of South Asian identity all the time, and I am really trying to bring this idea closer to the community because we just don’t talk about it very much.”
She sits on the board of Sakhi, a community-based organization in the New York metropolitan area committed to ending violence against women. At work too, Shah has to deal with cases of intimate partner violence.
She gives an example of a Gujarati-speaking patient she saw a few weeks ago for her third abortion. When Shah asked the woman, in Gujarati, if she was safe, she replied in the negative. She told Shah that she has sex with her husband because he wants to, even though she doesn’t always want to. “So it sounded like there was some sexual coercion going on,” Shah analyzes the scenario. “In some cultures, in a heterosexual relationship, a woman has sex with her husband because she’s supposed to and the husband is the one who initiates the sex and decides when sex will occur.’
Shah recalled a similar conversation when the particular woman had come for her first abortion. At the time, at Shah’s insistence, when she asked called her husband who was sitting in the waiting room and asked him about contraception, he refused. During her most recent visit, when Shah told her that she could put an IUD and her husband wouldn’t even know about it, she refused as well.
While there’s not always a straightforward answer or a plan or an intervention for cases like this, Shah says it is “eye-opening and reminds you of the complexities of the human experience.” In that patient’s case, there were many dynamics at play, Shah notes – gender, culture, and power. And although as a provider it is something she “can’t fix,” Shah can “be supportive and provide resources.”
Having seen enough scenarios like these, Shah was not surprised with the Gujarati patient’s case. “But maybe I live in an ideal world where I want everybody to have pleasurable, consensual sex when they want if they want.” So she is a little concerned when she doesn’t see it happen. But she knows “it’s an issue we should be talking about.”