Retired, Dr. Suzanne Poppema rides her horse five days a week. The Edmonds woman now has time to take piano lessons. Yet retirement hasn’t ended her commitment to a cause that became her life’s work.
Poppema, who in the early 1980s had a family practice in south Everett, spent much of her career performing abortions. In 1996, she wrote a book, “Why I Am an Abortion Doctor,” co-authored with Mike Henderson, a former Herald writer.
Now 71, Poppema ran Aurora Medical Services in the Shoreline area. Specializing in women’s reproductive care, she performed abortions for more than 20 years. Today, she is worried but not surprised by new laws and efforts in other states to severely limit access to abortion.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill May 15 that, if it takes effect in November, would be the nation’s most restrictive abortion law. With no exception for rape or incest victims, it would punish an abortion doctor with up to 99 years in prison. It would make abortion illegal from conception on, with few exceptions. Legal challenges have been filed against the law.
In Missouri Friday, a judge allowed the state’s only abortion clinic more time to comply with state regulations. Without that action, Missouri could have become the first state without access to abortion services since 1974, according to The New York Times.
It was 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade decision, extended federal protections for abortion. Now, many on both sides believe current actions to limit abortion are aimed at the high court, with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Poppema said that Washington, along with Oregon and California, will remain places with abortion access. Our state’s Reproductive Privacy Act codifies that “every woman has the fundamental right to choose or refuse to have an abortion,” except as specifically limited by the law. In 1970, Washington became the first state to legalize abortion by a vote of the people — Referendum 20.
“It’s horrible what’s happening,” said Poppema, a graduate of Harvard Medical School who did her residency at the University of Washington.
“A lot of young people are expressing shock and surprise. Some of us have been seeing this coming for over 30 years. This is the culmination of the anti-abortion movement since the Reagan years.”
Raised in New Hampshire, Poppema remembers when birth control wasn’t easily accessible. She recalled that when she was in college, “you couldn’t get birth control pills unless you were married.”
She sees a lack of access to abortion as nothing short of “enslavement of women to pregnancy — no bodily autonomy.”
Poppema has taken up another cause, human trafficking. She’s one of the founding board members with HEAL Trafficking. From a public health perspective, the group is dedicated to ending human trafficking and helping survivors. She’s also on the advisory board of the UW Women’s Center.
She and her husband, Dr. John Cramer, have become generous advocates for education. In 2018, they donated $100,000 — half last year, the other half this year — to Edmonds Community College to establish the Cramer-Poppema Endowed Scholarship for female students in science and technology programs. “It will make a difference,” she said.
And the couple, who’ll soon attend their 45th Harvard Medical School reunion, pledged another $100,000 for scholarships at their alma mater. “With anywhere from $200,000 to $400,000 in debt, you can’t be a family doctor,” she said.
It is people in need — the poor, the very young or older women, the abused — that she’s most concerned about as some states move to limit reproductive services. And Poppema said that the very states most apt to limit abortion are the ones least likely to provide help for poor women and their babies.
According to research published in a 2019 Harvard Public Health magazine, maternal death rates began rising around 1990 after decades of decline. “African American women are three to four times more likely to die during or after delivery than are white women,” said the Harvard article by Amy Roeder.
At the National School of Academic Equitation, the Snohomish riding academy where she keeps her black Andalusian horse, Poppema was far from any abortion-rights protests Friday. Still, she remembered wearing a bulletproof vest to work.
Poppema was interviewed for this column in 2009 after the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider killed at his Kansas church. On Friday, she said her two sons — now grown and parents themselves — worried back then about her safety. She also had concern, but that didn’t stop what she believed in doing, and what today she continues to defend.
“I’ll speak about it anytime, anywhere and to anybody,” Poppema said. She’d like to see easier access to mifepristone, a medication used to terminate pregnancy. It’s legal in the United States, she said, but a patient can’t fill a prescription for it at a pharmacy.
“I’m proud of the work I did. It’s not something I felt like I needed to hide, ever,” Poppema said. “When women would say ‘I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here,’ I’d remember why I’m doing this.”