Remembering Cy Romney: The Lifetime of a Pioneer Supporter of Reproductive Rights

Cy Romney, prominent Ob/Gyn, founder of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, advocate for legal abortion, believed every pregnancy should be a wanted pregnancy.

I had the great pleasure of knowing and working alongside Seymour “Cy” Romney, MD, for almost two decades. Since learning of his death on August 22, I’ve been reminded of how much he accomplished in his long and highly productive career. Though abortion was legalized in Cy’s lifetime, subsequent attacks on providers and restrictive laws led him to found Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PRCH) in the early 1990s. Although Cy was a noted gynecologic researcher with important scientific contributions to his name, his greatest legacy may be the work we do at PRCH to encourage and support access to quality reproductive health services for all Americans.

Cy’s support for abortion rights began early in his medical career. When he became an obstetrician/gynecologist in the 1940s, he was horrified by the many young women he saw suffering from botched attempts to end unwanted pregnancies. Decades later, Cy could still recall a phone call from a fellow physician in New York City who was trying to save a young woman’s life.

“Someone had put darning needles through her uterus in an attempt to end the pregnancy,” he recalled.

“She was 16 years old and was about six months pregnant. We were confronted with how to terminate the pregnancy and prevent this woman from going into shock and dying. Ultimately, we had to remove her uterus in order to save her life. Doing a hysterectomy on a 16-year-old woman because of a primitive, botched, criminal abortion is an unforgettable experience.”

Cy’s desire to help women like this one led him to fight for legal abortion both in New York state and nationally. He was present in 1970 when Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the law making abortion legal in New York. Three years later, Cy was at a medical conference in Boston when he learned of the Roe v. Wade decision.

“None of us will ever forget that night,” he said. “It was a landmark victory for public health, for women and for a compassionate, confidential patient-physician responsibility.”

In the early 1990s, legal abortion was under violent attack—anti-choice protestors were vandalizing clinics and even killing physicians, and new laws were making it difficult for women to access abortion services. Cy felt that doctors’ voices were missing from the public discourse on this issue. Believing that doctors could be effective public spokespeople, and that they had a public health responsibility to speak out, he gathered together a handful of other concerned doctors and created Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. He wrote hundreds of letters to fellow physicians, cajoling and flattering them to contribute to his vision of a physician-led organization that would work with the women’s movement to protect a woman’s right to choose.

In the nearly two decades since its founding, Cy’s vision has grown into a national organization representing doctors from a variety of disciplines in almost every state in the US with programs in public policy, communications and medical education. It has even spawned an international initiative, Global Doctors for Choice. Yet the need to protect abortion rights, both here and abroad, continues unabated. One of the last PRCH events Cy attended was an awards ceremony honoring his former PRCH board colleague George Tiller, MD, who was killed shortly thereafter by an anti-choice extremist—the first such murder in years. In the year since Dr. Tiller’s murder, PRCH’s network has pushed back against such extremism. At this year’s abortion provider awards ceremony, we launched the Abortion Provider’s Declaration of Rights, which captures everything Cy fought for all along: the physician’s right to practice medicine in the best interests of his patients without fear of harassment and violence.

Violence and harassment aren’t the only anti-choice activities we combat. PRCH is also involved in fighting laws that impede women’s access to reproductive health—and championing laws that help doctors provide the best care to their patients. In a few weeks, PRCH will bring a group of physicians to Washington, DC, to urge Congress to lift the ban on abortions in military hospitals. I know I’ll be thinking of Cy that day, the trips we took to Washington, the day we celebrated the FDA’s approval of mifepristone medication abortion, and the countless letters he wrote state and federal government officials urging support for sound reproductive health policies.

The work of protecting abortion care may never be over, but I am encouraged when I look back over Cy’s lifetime and his distinguished career. He helped achieve so much: legalizing abortion in New York and the United States; training hundreds of physicians as advocates; founding and leading an organization that has become “the voice of the pro-choice physician.” The greatest way we can honor this amazing man and humble doctor is to keep fighting for what Cy believed in—every pregnancy a wanted pregnancy.