U of S faces backlash for non-medical placements at pregnancy centre that encourages 'gift of life'
U of S says placement options are 'not an endorsement of any organization'
The University of Saskatchewan college of medicine is receiving backlash for offering medical students the choice to do a placement at the Saskatoon Pregnancy Options Centre (SPOC) — an organization that says it hopes "clients will choose the gift of life."
The non-medical placement is part of the community and workplace centred learning experience module in a second-year class titled "Medicine in Society."
SPOC has been on the list of placement options for the past 10 years. However, last October a group of second-year students had issues with it and took their concerns to the college's leadership.
Last week, the college came out with a decision that the placement was still appropriate. This prompted students, doctors and a national advocacy organization to take to social media.
Say what now <a href="https://twitter.com/usask?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@usask</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/USaskMedDean?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@USaskMedDean</a> about your medical school partnering with a crisis pregnancy centre, a place that lies to pregnant people? You want your medical students to learn lies and impose their personal beliefs on patients? <a href="https://t.co/r69h2IcvCE">https://t.co/r69h2IcvCE</a>—@DrJenGunter
According to the SPOC's website, it offers services such as free pregnancy tests, prenatal education, education on all pregnancy related options and sexual health community education parenting classes in which participants can earn "Baby Bucks to shop for brand new baby clothes and diapers in our care closet!"
No medical staff at SPOC
The centre says it has "trained client advocates," but confirmed to CBC News that it doesn't employ any trained medical professionals.
"We hope that with our support and resources — personal counselling, prenatal education, parenting classes, community service referrals and more — our clients will choose the gift of life," its website says.
The SPOC said its employees don't help arrange for abortions, but "do not obstruct our clients' decision to have one," adding that "all those who work and volunteer at SPOC profess a belief in Jesus Christ."
In a statement to CBC News, the University of Saskatchewan college of medicine wrote, "The placement options are not an endorsement of any organization, but offer a means of learning from and about people/patients with varied perspectives and beliefs."
The SPOC's interim executive director Anne-Marie Hughes wrote to CBC News in an email that, "We are about building relationships with the people we serve."
"We aren't about making choices for women. Options support is about listening to women. We listen to their circumstances, give solid information about procedures, adoption and parenting and then listen again," she wrote.
"None of the medical students who made the choice to observe and learn at the centre has ever had a problem during their time here."
Medical students concerned
Carissa McGuin is a third-year medical student at the university and the senior gender issues representative for the Gender Engagement in Medicine (GEM) student group that brought concerns about SPOC to the school.
The main issue that the group voiced repeatedly, according to McGuin, was that SPOC was intentionally spreading misinformation to intimidate women and dissuade them from accessing abortion care in Saskatchewan.
"They have a section on their website where they talk about post-abortion counselling as one of the services that they offer, and the whole page is about something that they call post abortion stress or post abortion depression," McGuin explained.
"Post-abortion stress syndrome is a term that was created by crisis pregnancy centres to intimidate women and try to scare them away from getting abortion care."
McGuin said "post-abortion stress syndrome" has been discredited by major psychiatric associations, and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Tasia Alexopoulos is a spokesperson for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. She says it's a "red flag" that the SPOC has information on post-abortion grief.
"It creates a real kind of fear around what could happen if you do go through with an abortion," she said.
She said these types of centres, referred to as "crisis pregnancy centres," are very common in Canada and are legal since they aren't regulated by any professional or government body.
The University of Saskatchewan is sending a "dangerous" message by providing the SPOC as a placement, according to Alexopoulos.
"Abortion in Canada is 100 per cent legal. It's a constitutional right. And so to tell medical students it's OK to work at, for their placement, an anti-abortion organization, really set students up I think to potentially continue to practise medicine with anti-abortion beliefs," she said.
While the right to abortion is not specifically listed in the Canadian constitution, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada argues that court rulings have given abortion increased protection from restrictive measures.
SPOC 'suitable' option: USask
A letter last Monday said that undergraduate leadership at the college met several times to review the SPOC placement, examined the organization's objectives, interviewed students who previously did a placement there and interviewed the centre's executive director.
They ultimately decided that the SPOC was a "suitable" placement option. They also said they will ensure that there are no placement shortages that would require a student to do a placement at the SPOC if they don't want to.
The ensuing uproar on social media has caused the college to reconsider. According to associate dean of undergraduate medical education Dr. Meredith McKague, the college will be conducting a further "in-depth review."
McGuin said she believes doctors should have the right to have diverse opinions, but that she doesn't think it's acceptable that they impose their personal beliefs onto patients.
"We don't have the right to provide them with false information or try to intimidate them into doing what we think they should do. That's not patient-centred care, and that's not the belief that our college has instilled in us," she said.
Colten Molnar is another third-year uSask medical student who advocated for the removal of the SPOC placement and tweeted the university's letter response.
He said the the university should remove SPOC from the list of placement options.
"It should not be affiliated in any way with sending students or exposing students to the work of SPOC," Molnar said.
He said he's glad that the school is taking a further look into the placement.
"I'm hopeful that we'll hear very, very shortly, an outcome that should have happened months ago."
USask alumni 'absolutely appalled'
Dr. Kirsti Ziola is a 2012 U of S college of medicine alumni who is now an OBGYN and termination of pregnancy provider.
She said she was "absolutely appalled" when she heard the SPOC was a learning opportunity for students and wrote two letters to the college leadership.
"The college of medicine should have absolutely nothing to do with these organizations other than to make a very strong standard in saying we don't agree with the fact that they exist and we should be actively working toward development of local policy to have these labelled as they are, false clinics," Ziola said.
WATCH | Dr. Kirsti Ziola says the U of S college of medicine should cut ties with SPOC:
Both Ziola and Alexopoulos said people experiencing an unplanned pregnancy and seeking expert advice need to ensure they're being informed of all their options.
Alexopoulos recommends the charity organization Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights, which has a national 24-hour line, as well as the Saskatoon Sexual Health clinic for people in the city.
The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada website also has a list of abortion clinics across Canada.
"If there's not accurate information, if they focus on post abortion rather than actually accessing an abortion, then you're on the wrong website," Alexopoulos said. "You've got to get out of there because you won't get accurate information there."