Nov. 20 2017

The Story of One Term Paper’s Second Life

A 2014 report on the provision of contraception lives on in the work of its Mailman alumna author, now advocate for reproductive justice in Oregon

Even though she graduated two years ago, Laurel Swerdlow (MPH 2015) still keeps a term paper she wrote at the Mailman School on her computer for easy reference. Now the interim executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, she consults the text anytime she drafts policy memos related to access to contraception—the paper’s subject.

Swerdlow’s paper has a second life at the Mailman School too. Her teacher on the assignment, Jennifer Hirsch, professor of Sociomedical Sciences, keeps a copy on hand to share with students as a model of excellent writing and critical thinking. “Her paper was just so on-point—not just the writing but also the ideas behind it,” says Hirsch.

Presenting evidence of a generation gap among reproductive health providers, the paper argues that younger providers too often overcompensate for their older counterpart’s unease with long-acting reversible contraception, pushing LARC on patients to the point of coercion.

“The paper I wrote in Dr. Hirsch’s class tries to outline the battle we’re facing and dig into some of the reasons LARC might not be the preferred method for everyone,” says Swerdlow. “Race, class, and ethnicity all play into contraceptive choices.”

She fondly remembers her Mailman experience, pointing to “a fantastic cohort and really impressive, thoughtful, engaging faculty.” Even so, Hirsch’s Theories and Perspectives of Sexual Health class stands out.

“Her class has been incredibly influential in the work I’m doing now,” Swerdlow says. “It’s important for people in non-academic fields to have a grasp on the literature, and to have a theoretical framework for analyzing policy work.”

From Mailman to the Oregon Statehouse

After earning an MPH with a certificate in Sexuality, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Swerdlow stayed on to work with Wendy Chavkin, professor emerita in Population and Family Health, on projects leading to a published paper in the journal Health and Human Rights and a chapter in the book, Babies for Sale.

She applied and was accepted into law school, but changed course after being offered a “dream job” working with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon. In her estimation, a law degree wasn’t necessary to start making a difference. “There’s a lot you can accomplish as an issue area expert. I know a lot about reproductive health policy—thanks of course to the Mailman School.”

Swerdlow hit the ground running in her new job, arriving just as the organization was ramping up an ambitious legislative fight to ensure the right to reproductive care in Oregon, closing gaps that forced tens of thousands of women to pay high deductibles or pay outright for services. For the next year and a half, as advocacy director, she took the lead on drafting the bill and helped lobby for its passage, even organizing the August 15 ceremony where Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed the Reproductive Health Equity Act into law.

Heralded as the nation’s most progressive reproductive health policy, the law makes Oregon the first to fund reproductive health coverage for women excluded from Medicaid based on citizenship status and the first to codify no-cost abortion coverage in state statute. Anticipating Republican challenges to the Affordable Care Act, it also writes the entire list of women’s health services covered without cost-sharing under the Affordable Care Act into Oregon law.

“We’re really lucky in Oregon to have elected officials who are champions of reproductive healthcare,” says Swerdlow, who was named the interim executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon in October. “It’s critical that we continue to fight for access to comprehensive healthcare everywhere. There are a lot of people who care about this issue and stand solidly with us. That’s what makes my work so fulfilling.”