Tag Archives: Dr. Janet Lefkowitz

Dr. Janet Lefkowitz Reacts To A Post-Roe World

The Alabama woman was in her early 30s. She had an 8-year-old son. Now she was pregnant again,

But the father was no longer in the picture. And she had just been diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Her doctor refused to treat her. Though it was early in her pregnancy, drugs that could save her life might harm the cells in her uterus. In her state — and many others — that could be a felony.

Dr. Janet Lefkowitz was horrified by that story. And it was not hearsay. The woman was one of the 1983 Staples High School graduate’s patients.

Dr. Janet Lefkowitz

Dr. Lefkowitz does not live in Alabama. But once a month, she leaves New England — where she is an assistant professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, and affiliated with Women & Infants Hospital in Providence — and spends a week down South.

Her other title is medical director of reproductive health services for Alabama. The organization provides reproductive health care, advocacy and education throughout Planned Parenthood Southeast.

Until June 24, that included abortions. After last month’s Supreme Court decision, Dr. Lefkowitz could be arrested. Even if her patient was a victim of rape or incest.

Or 9 years old.

Or diagnosed with stomach cancer.

Dr. Lefkowitz did not set out to work as an obstetrician/gynecologist, or become a reproductive rights advocate. She did not even plan on becoming a doctor.

After Staples and Sarah Lawrence College, she did children’s theater. She temped.

But her family — including her father, orthopedist Dr. Larry Lefkowitz — and Temple Israel had imbued in her a strong belief in Tikkun Olam: acting as constructively and beneficially as possible, for as many people and as long as possible.

Eventually she found her way to medical school. During her OB/GYN residency in Hartford, she realized the field was perfect for her.

Her clinic work in places like Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile was fulfilling. She worked too with Mississippi’s Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the defendant in the seismic Supreme Court decisions.

Supreme Court members who decided Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Katanj Brown Jackson has since replaced Justice Stephen Breyer.

That ruling — a cause for anger, fear and despair in some Americans, relief and jubilation in others — was both expected by reproductive rights advocates. Still, the reality felt stunning.

“Abortion is safe, normal health care,” Dr. Lefkowitz says emphatically.

“The first priority of any doctor is that patients get the compassionate care they deserve. Abortion is part of that.”

The Supreme Court decision will not change access to abortion for “people with resources,” Dr. Lefkowitz says.

But those without — including marginalized populations —  will be “forced or coerced” to deliver a baby they may not be able to properly care for.

“We trust our patients. They know their bodies and themselves. Restricting healthcare for them is frustrating.”

Dr. Lefkowitz and her colleagues are turning their attention to “self-managed” abortions: pills. She calls them “safe and effective.” However, information about and access to that medication is no longer assured.

Her initial reaction to the Supreme Court decision was “sadness and numbness,” the doctor says. Now, the medical community is coming together to explore next steps.

Hundreds turned out for 3 pro-choice rallies in Westport this year. (Photo/Bobbi Essagof)

“We need to use our training and expertise to serve patients, to the best of our ability. Otherwise, they — and their families — will suffer.”

There is still a stigma around abortion, Dr. Lefkowitz notes. She is encouraged that in the wake of the Court’s ruling, women are speaking up about their experiences.

She adds, “We know the decision to have an abortion is not made lightly. Each story is personal. Everyone needs to hear the stories of those who feel they can tell them.”

Now, Dr. Lefkowitz is focusing on the realities of the Supreme Court’s judgment.

“If there’s a ‘heartbeat’ — really just electrical activity — doctors can’t do anything. If I see a fetal anomaly that’s not compatible with life” — for example, lack of brain development — “I can’t do anything. I’ve delivered those babies. They don’t live.”

She worries too about women who suffer ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages. New laws can lead to criminal investigations, of themselves and their doctors.

In fact, Dr. Lefkowitz says, because the situation is so unsettled, attorneys for Planned Parenthood in Alabama and Mississippi have told employees not to provide women with information about abortions in other states, or make referrals there.

Meanwhile, Dr. Lefkowitz can’t shake some of the images she’s witnessed — and wonders about those she may no longer see.

A mother took a day off work to bring her 15-year-old daughter — a victim of sexual assault — to a Southern clinic. The girl was just starting high school. A good student and athlete, her future had been bright.

She had an abortion, and moved on with her life.

Now, Dr. Lefkowitz says, she’d have to travel hundreds of miles.

Or have the baby.

“Abortion will always be a key part of healthcare,” Dr. Lefkowitz says.

“People need it. They need autonomy of their body. And they need to be able to care for the kids they already have.

“This decision doesn’t take away abortion. It takes away only safe, legal abortion. It’s sad, terrifying and frightening.

“All we want to do is help.”

(If you appreciate stories like this one, please support “06880.” Click here to donate.)

Hundreds Rally For Abortion Rights

Galvanized by news that the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, 500 people gathered in downtown Westport today.

The crowd on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge included women and men; girls and boys; parents, grandparents and grandchildren, and Governor Lamont, Senator Blumenthal and Congressman Himes.

A portion of the crowd, near the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. Congressman Jim Himes (center, behind the blonde woman) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (right, blue jacket) mingled with attendees.

They held signs. They chanted. They cheered when passing drivers honked in support.

They listened intently to speakers — not just politicians, but two obstetricians, and women with close experience with illegal abortions.

Educator Joy Colon addresses the crowd. Signs held up behind describe resources to help women in states with restrictive abortion laws.

Lamont — who will sign a first-in-the-nation bill protecting medical providers and patients seeking abortion care here, and expanding the type of practitioners eligible to perform abortion-related care in the state — noted that the downtown bridge is the site of many rallies. He called it “the conscience of Connecticut.”

“Keep your hands off our women, our doctors, our justice,” he warned those seeking to curtail abortion rights.

Lamont introduced State Representative Matt Blumenthal, who was a driving force behind the new Connecticut law, also spoke.

Blumenthal introduced his father. The US senator said he was “proud to be in this fight for decades.”

The crowd included many young people — including boys.

Himes said that people who “claim to be conservative want to overturn 50 years of settled law.” He praised 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker — standing at the front of the crowd — as a Republican ally. 

(From left): Governor Lamont and Senator Blumenthal listen to Congressman Jim Himes.

Rally organizer Darcy Hicks then noted that it was time for women to speak.

Rally organizer Darcy Hicks

Dr. Janet Lefkowitz — a Westport native, Staples High School graduate, and prominent OB/GYN and assistant professor at Brown University who provides abortion care in Southern states — recounted her difficult experiences in Mississippi and Alabama. She did not become a doctor to get involved in politics, she said — but it has become part of her patient care.

Fellow OB/GYN Dr. Shieva Ghofrany of Stamford said that people who are pro-choice “truly honor the living.” Noting that comprehensive sex education reduces unwanted pregnancies, she urged those who are pro-life to embrace education, maternal leave, and contraception.

Teacher and Trumbull Town Council member Joy Colon spoke of the impact of overturning Roe v. Wade on people of color. “People who look like me should not die because they don’t want to be pregnant,” she said.

(All photos/Dan Woog)

Janet Lefkowitz: In The Deep South, Deep In The Abortion Debate

In 1965, Connecticut was at the forefront of an important battle on women’s privacy and reproductive rights. The US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut paved the way to legalize birth control for unmarried couples — and then for Roe v. Wade, which guarantees safe and legal abortions.

Nearly 5 decades later — as abortion and women’s reproductive rights are under assault in parts of the nation — Connecticut stands on the other side. State legislators follow citizens’ leads in protecting — even strengthening — abortion laws and reproductive health choices.

It’s easy to sit here and tsk-tsk places like Alabama and Georgia, where women’s rights to abortion — and personal choices, and ultimately their health — are under attack.

It’s another thing entirely to live there, and be on the front lines of those battles. Westport native Janet Lefkowitz does, and is.

At Staples High School, she enjoyed a broad range of activities: Players, WWPT-FM, senior class vice president.

Dr. Janet Lefkowitz

After graduating in 1983 — and 4 years later from Sarah Lawrence College — Lefkowitz did children’s theater. She temped.

She did not — immediately — follow the career path of her father, orthopedist Dr. Larry Lefkowitz.

But her family, and Temple Israel, had imbued in her a strong belief in Tikkun Olam: acting as constructively and beneficially as possible, for as many people and as long as possible.

Eventually, Lefkowitz found her way to medical school. During her residency in obstetrics and gynecology in Hartford, she realized that field was perfect for her.

“I was working with generally healthy women. There were emergencies, but I could help them help themselves,” she explains.

Her personality — “formed in Westport,” she says — was perfect for that specialty. “I could talk to people,” Lefkowitz says. “As an OB-GYN, you spend a lot of time building relationships with patients.”

She joined a busy practice in Rhode Island. She counseled women, performed surgeries, and taught at Brown University. Her husband — former Staples classmate Jonathan Leepson — was in banking. When his job took him to Atlanta. Lefkowitz moved too.

Though Atlanta is a young, thriving and cosmopolitan city, it’s still in Georgia. Schools teach abstinence-based sex education. Lefkowitz was stunned.

The wife of a rabbi was past president of the local Planned Parenthood chapter. She encouraged Lefkowitz to get involved.

Realizing that women’s access to reproductive health care was at great risk, she soon became chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Southeast. The organization provides reproductive health care, along with advocacy and education, throughout Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Those states are ground zero in the current national abortion debate.

Officially a part-time job — she was hired to work 21 hours a week — it is actually much more. Yet it’s a “labor of love,” Lefkowitz says.

It’s also very frustrating.

“We’re having constant conversations about things that are should-haves — access to cervical and breast cancer screenings,” she notes. “It’s eye-opening, and scary.”

For a while, she worked behind the scenes. But when Alabama passed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws — it would permit abortions only if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus cannot survive, but not in cases of rape or incest — and Georgia and Mississippi pursued legislation that would ban abortion as soon as a physician detects a fetal heartbeat, the national Planned Parenthood office asked her to speak out.

The video “sort of outed me,” Lefkowitz. Previously, some neighbors did not talk to her because of her work. Now, many more people knew what she does. And where she stands on perhaps the most controversial topic in the region.

“There’s a lot of emotion, and a lot of misconceptions,” Lefkowitz says of the current debate.

She sees the issue as “protecting a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body, for the good of her family and herself. It’s fundamentally a health issue.”

So I wondered: After spending time on the front lines, is she optimistic or pessimistic? Proud? Worried?

“All those things!” Lefkowitz says.

“I’m super-proud to be engaged in this work. Women are being denied their rights. If I can help people understand that abortion is safe — and that it’s not a choice made lightly — that’s good.

“I’m angry that politicians don’t see women as responsible decision-makers. They feel they need to make choices for us.”

Alabama is ground zero in the national abortion debate.

They’re also forcing doctors like her, she says, “to choose between providing ethical care, and breaking the law.” If the new wave of legislation is upheld, she believes most doctors would follow the law — or leave the area. That would worsen the already poor state of health care for women.

Yet Lefkowitz is also hopeful the laws will be stopped in court. She’s heartened that what’s happening in the South has spurred activism around the country. States like Connecticut, New York and Vermont are trying to widen — rather than restrict — women’s reproductive rights.

And she is heartened that people are now talking about the issue.

Personally, Lefkowitz says, one good thing has come out of her recent activism.

“This has helped me become a more compassionate physician. Women are being forced to make heartbreaking decisions. But I’m glad to be with them, taking care of them during a very important part of their lives.”

(Hat tip: Emily Silverman)