Interview with Lois Backus – Executive Director, Medical Students for Choice

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Lois Backus is the Executive Director of Medical Students for Choice. Here we talk about her background, work, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Just to provide a moderate background, what are some aspects of family and personal story?

Lois Backus: I have been the Executive Director in the field of reproductive health since early 1989, 12 years as the ED of two Planned Parenthood affiliates and 18 years here at Medical Students for Choice. During my time with Planned Parenthood, I added abortion services to the medical services provided at my affiliates clinics and among the challenges inherent in that work (funding the renovations, designing the changes in medical systems, training staff, etc), the greatest challenge was finding a qualified physician to provide the abortions. At my first affiliate, finding a physician took 3 years.  I moved to Medical Students for Choice in order to have a positive impact on physicians trained and willing to provide this service for those who need it.

Personally, I have been married for 40 years, have one adult son who is married and has a daughter who is a major source of delight in my life. My entire professional career has been in nonprofit management and advocacy. I came to this career path after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan and witnessing the direct effects of unclean water and food supplies. When I returned to the US, I obtained a Masters in Public Health at Yale University and embarked on my health-related, nonprofit career.

Jacobsen: For those interested in contributing or becoming involved with the organization, even simply donating finances or professional networks, how can they do it? MSFC is a small organization in terms of staff (11) with a powerful reach across the globe (221 student chapters in 24 countries). 


Backus: Those interested in learning more about our work can find ample stories and resources at https://msfc.org. Donations can be accepted here https://msfc.org/about-us/giving-to-msfc/. In addition, anyone is welcome to reach out to us at students@msfc.org.

Jacobsen: What the specific advocacy and representation work of Medical Students for Choice?  MSFC’s mission is Creating Tomorrow’s Abortion Providers and Pro-Choice Physicians. 

Backus: We work to cultivate and support group advocacy focused on changing institutional and public policy via tactics involving empowering coordinated action by groups of medical students.  Student groups (chapters) work to influence their institution’s policies and curriculum around reproductive healthcare and join larger community-based and state- or province- or country-wide campaigns to influence health policies in reproductive healthcare.  In addition, MSFC provides a range of educational programs for highly motivated individual medical students who wish to learn more about abortion provision and have no access to that education in their home institutions.

Jacobsen: There are over 10,000 medical students and residents represented by the organization. What does this imply for the potential force exerted or influence on public policy and politics around the world?  MSFC is 26 years old. 

Backus: In that time, graduated members of MSFC have taken on leadership roles in reproductive health and other health specialties that have helped to dramatically increase abortion access (we have former members providing abortions in 42 US states, five Canadian Provinces, and three other countries).

Jacobsen: What nations matter most in terms of influence on global policy and orientation in politics around the practice of pro-choice medicine? 

Backus: I believe the US has a huge influence through its global funding (or non-funding) of public health, including reproductive health programs, particularly in less developed countries needing US funding. MSFC’s chapters in Africa, while not being directly funded in any way by government funding, have suffered the loss of key educational partners due to the US Global Gag Rule.

Jacobsen: Who has been the main opposition since the beginning of pro-choice medicine to pro-choice practices? 

Backus: For MSFC, the largest barrier has been the extremely heirarchical nature of the medical system. Medical students advocating for controversial or unpopular issues within the medical education system have often paid a career price for their activism (uncomplimentary “Dean’s Letters,” poor grades, failing to “match” for a residency). Much of this institutional push back is based in an institution’s concern about the raising of controversy as opposed to direct anti-choice efforts, but occasionally, coordinated anti-choice efforts contribute to this barrier. For instance, pro-life medical students objecting to an MSFC group’s activities as religiously discriminatory, or negative grading of a student’s work by a professor who is pro-life.

Jacobsen: What have been their efforts, tactics and strategies, and failures and successes? 

Backus: This is too big a question to answer here.  I could write a book.

Jacobsen: How can individuals, organizations, policymakers, and others, anticipate the efforts, and tactics and strategies, of pro-life and anti-choice organizations into the future – to reduce their successes and increase our own? 

Backus: As we try to do with our student members, pro-choice organizations need to concentrate on building the level of mission commitment within each activist that they will need to carry this effort through the next few decades.  This cultivation of mission focus and long-term view among those in the pro-life organizations is largely responsible for their overwhelming success.  That is why MSFC focus 20 years out rather than on year by year outcomes.

Jacobsen: How can an organization campaign effectively? 

Backus: See my comments above. Long-term strategic focus.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Lois.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.

Photo by Tiraya Adam on Unsplash

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