Dr. Deborah (Debbie) Billings, an adjunct faculty member and affiliate of the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, received the 2016 John P. McGovern Award from Ball State University. She received this prestigious award for her leadership in advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice across the country and around the world.
[Photo: Dr. Deborah (Debbie) Billings]
When Dr. Billings was in high school, a number of her friends became pregnant. Sex education was limited to slides of disease and malaise and access to contraceptives was limited for young people. For Dr. Billings, these connections sparked a lifelong passion for reproductive health, rights, and justice. She has spent the ensuing three decades working to ensure that women and men around the world have the information and access they need to govern their own bodies and lives.
“After experiencing the lack of sexual education in high school and seeing my friends struggle with teen pregnancies, I knew there had to be a better way,” says Dr. Billings.
She became involved in the sexual and reproductive health and rights arena from that point forward, focusing her undergraduate thesis on the topic (i.e., contraceptive access among women in Costa Rica) while studying Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She then earned master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from the University of Michigan, where she served as a contraceptive and sexuality peer counselor with the school’s health services office.
During her doctoral program, Dr. Billings worked in several refugee camps in southern Mexico, where she documented rural Guatemalan women’s political organizing in exile. Women’s overall lack of access to reproductive health services, including basic pap smears and contraceptives, was significant. After completing her Ph.D., she joined Ipas, a global organization dedicated to ending preventable deaths and disabilities from unsafe abortions. With Ipas, Dr. Billings worked with public health systems in countries throughout Latin America and Africa, collaborating on research that tested effective and ethical ways to offer women safe, legal abortion services, as well as services that addressed complications from unsafe abortion in contexts where legal frameworks limited access to safe abortion services. Research findings often translated into changes in policies and practices.
In 2009, Dr. Billings moved to South Carolina where she engaged in research, teaching, and advocacy as a full-time faculty member in South Carolina’s Department of Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) and the College of Arts & Sciences’ Women’s & Gender Studies. After five years at South Carolina, she joined the New Morning Foundation where she directs Choose Well, a statewide contraceptive access initiative.
“We are working with health services, community-reaching organizations, policy makers, and others to effect systems and policy changes to continuously improve access to contraceptive care services for women and men in South Carolina,” says Dr. Billings. “An estimated 52 percent of all pregnancies in South Carolina are unintended. We want to help create the conditions that empower all who live in South Carolina to make informed decisions about if, when, and how they choose to be pregnant.”