Susan Desmarais was aghast when she read the results of a reproductive health survey from October 2017. “There are glaring gaps in reproductive services here on-Island,” Desmarais told The Times.
The study was conducted by Rural Health Scholars, a group of students from the University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Nursing and Medicine. The survey was funded by the Dukes County Health Council, which sponsors Rural Health Scholars to research and analyze annual health-related topics pertinent to the Island. This year’s study was called “Addressing Sexual and Reproductive Health on Martha’s Vineyard.” They’ve conducted seven other research surveys since 2009.
The main findings of the study revealed a need for sexual education revamp at MVRHS, better support for the Island’s LGBTQ community, and inaccessibility to pregnancy termination services.
Desmarais is a board member of the Friends of Family Planning, which supports the Martha’s Vineyard Family Planning Clinic on State Road. The clinic provides women’s health exams, STD screenings, HPV testing, contraceptives, and birth control pills, as well as Pap smears and colposcopy procedures. Anybody can go to the clinic regardless of immigration or insurance status. All services are confidential, and the clinic is operated by Health Imperatives, a federally funded nonprofit based in Brockton. The building, however, is owned by Friends of Family Planning, which paid off the clinic’s mortgage this year. Their annual Memorial Day Weekend art show has contributed to that payoff. After 30 years, their final art show was this Saturday, May 25, and Sunday, May 26.
“We met as a board and determined that we needed to find a way to combine advocacy, education, and fundraising. That’s not something you can do with an art show,” Desmarais said. Moving forward, the Friends of Family Planning is shifting its structure to focus on addressing the gaps revealed in the Rural Health Scholars study.
“We’re in the process of dividing into committees,” Desmarais said. “One of those committees has given a grant to the clinic for people to get trained and start providing sex ed at the high school in a more complete way than it’s being taught.”
“Get Real” is a new sex ed curriculum being implemented throughout the state. According to Desmarais, it teaches and reinforces age-appropriate knowledge and verbiage. Part of it addresses what “no” means in the context of consent, and how to navigate communication, relationships, and all that comes with being sexually active.
Better support for LGBTQ people goes hand in hand with high school education. “It’s an interesting thing,” Desmarais said. “We haven’t come as far as a culture as we could, as far as talking to our youth about gender and sexual orientation. I don’t think we’re as open as we think we are.”
Because Health Imperative is federally funded, the clinic is prohibited from providing pregnancy termination services. Clinics across the nation have to choose between receiving federal funds or offering abortion services. There are no options for individuals on Martha’s Vineyard.
“I’ve lived here for decades, and worked in human services,” Desmarais said. “I was shocked to find out there were no options. I knew surgical abortions weren’t available, but I always assumed medical abortions were.”
Medical abortions are a series of pills administered to terminate pregnancy. They are available within eight weeks of gestation.
“When I learned this, I did quite a bit of research,” Desmarais said. She found out local pharmacies are not allowed to carry medical abortion pills. Prescribing doctors have to become certified through a pharmaceutical company, and administer the first two pills at the doctor’s office.
According to Desmarais, in order to have this service on-Island, doctors need to seek out certification by a pharmaceutical company.
As it stands, women have to travel off-Island, and as far as Springfield or Boston, to receive abortion services.
On August 4, the Friends are hosting a public forum and panel discussion at the Old Whaling Church to talk about the lack of access to pregnancy termination services on-Island.
“We’re being very careful with this forum,” Desmarais said. “We’re not having any clinic staff or Health Imperative involvement. It’s just the Friends of Family Planning.
“The point is to start a discussion about what women need, and what women want,” Desmarais said. “Do they even want these services here on-Island?”
The Friends have a reimbursement fund for women and men that go off-Island for pregnancy termination or vasectomy services.
According to the study, on average, women from Martha’s Vineyard travel 90 to 101 miles to access abortion services off-Island. The majority of U.S. women, about 67 percent, travel less than 25 miles, 11 percent have to travel 50 to 100 miles, and 6 percent of women travel more than 100 miles.
“I happen to be 62 years old,” Desmarais said. “I came of age when termination services weren’t available in the state of Massachusetts. But I’m very dedicated to it because I think it’s the cornerstone of a woman’s freedom to have reproductive freedom.”