-by Julia Woods, student staff
No one tried to perform an exorcism on me.
“All of our services are free and confidential. We’re not a medical clinic, but we do use tests from a facility that’s 97-99% accurate.” I was certainly not expecting to hear that from an employee in a Crisis Pregnancy Center—nor was I expecting to hear the words, “The decision [to get an abortion] is up to you,” or, “It’s your body, and you have a choice.” I entered the office bracing myself for blatant judgment, preaching, and condemnation—but that wasn’t how it unfolded.
The Real Choices office is situated in the bottom corner of a building that also houses a Thai restaurant and a tailor’s shop. The inside is tidy and business-like; with its sea foam green walls, hand sanitizer, and bookshelves full of pamphlets, it’s vaguely clinical, reminiscent a waiting room in a doctor’s office. After I explained that I needed information on abortion (I said that a home pregnancy test had come back positive, and that I had an appointment later on at Planned Parenthood), a woman ushered me into a private back room for our consultation.
She introduced herself: she was not all that much older than me, white, college-educated, a single mom of three—and working at Real Choices was her full time job. I assume that this line of work is not exactly lucrative (I didn’t ask what her salary was, though at one point she did mention that her employer did not provide her or her family with health insurance.) Considering her education level, she could have probably gotten a job with a better salary and benefits—but she explained that she chose to work at the CPC for personal reasons. After her divorce, she had fallen into a “dark” period of promiscuity, but had found stability by reconnecting with her religion. She wanted to help other women who had experienced unfulfilling or self-destructive sexual relationships. (Not exactly as sinister as I had expected.)
During our session, her demeanor was maternal but not motherly, thoughtful and steady, professional while still approachable. (Had she been a gynecologist, she would have had an ideal bedside manner.) The intake form requested standard information (name, date of birth, contact information, date of my last menstrual period and the last time I had sex, stress level, whether I had been pregnant before) as well a few subtly stigmatizing, less standard, medically unnecessary points (my religious affiliation and marital status.) She stated several times that Real Choices is “not medical;” I signed the form. She prepared a pregnancy test and handed me a Styrofoam coffee cup to urinate in (there is no private bathroom inside the office, so you have to go out in the hall and use the building’s public one. They give the coffee cup instead of traditional plastic sample cups, so that transporting your urine from the bathroom back to the office is a little less awkward and conspicuous.)
As we waited for the pregnancy test to develop on the table, she said, “I’m glad we caught you before you went over there [Planned Parenthood].” She explained that Planned Parenthood clinicians did not always confirm that their patients were pregnant before performing an abortion; they would suction an empty uterus and then charge you for it. (I was mildly surprised to hear this coming from an apparently sane individual; apparently Todd Akin is not alone in his beliefs.)
“They don’t always give a pregnancy test before an abortion? Do they do… an ultrasound or something first?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Not unless you ask for it. They may do the ultrasound while they’re trying to do the procedure, but they won’t let you see it. So… we’ve had a lot of people have bad experiences over there. Which is why I’m glad you’re here first.”
This is just a bit incongruous, considering that the past year has been one big bonanza of medically illegitimate attacks on Roe v. Wade. Notably in 2012, Virginia welcomed legislation for forced ultrasounds, Sandra Fluke was viciously debased for testifying in favor of birth control coverage, Mitt Romney vowed to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood, and Richard Murdock implied that pregnancy as a result of rape was “something God intended.” And those are just some of the highlights—in preparation for the presidential elections, the anti-choice movement reared its ugly head in just about every state, county, and town, besmirching the notion that a woman should have a say about her own body.
As an organization, Real Choices preaches many of the same misogynist sermons that I had heard reeling over the news. The website, as mentioned in Part I, is a goldmine of horror stories about sexually transmitted disease and the spiritual/emotional traumas of premarital intercourse. It warns that premarital sex leads to “ruined reputation(s),” asserts that by some illogical mechanism, oral sex increases the risk of developing a yeast infection—it even advocates “[going] to church together” instead of engaging in intercourse, which, if practiced dutifully enough, is a means to become a “renewed virgin.” The office is also stocked with pamphlets of extremist misinformation: one nugget entitled “Sense & Sexuality” warns that “the rectum is an exit, not an entrance;” another offers fun facts about STI’s, stating that “In the late 1400’s, syphilis was thought to be a plague sent by an angry god to punish sins.” (Apparently some people in the 21st century still believe that to be true.)
I was curious to see how these views stretched for the woman at the CPC, and if there were any discrepancies between the social conservatism of the organization and the personal views its employees. So, during the course of our interview, I brought up the hot button topics of emergency contraception, birth control, and STI prevention, so that I could contrast her views with those presented by the greater organization.
“I’ve heard that some people consider Plan B to be a form of abortion,” I said tentatively.
“Well, that’s up for debate,” she replied, explaining (correctly) that emergency contraception is essentially a high dose of hormonal birth control pills, and (incorrectly) that “the birth control pill can become an abortive agent depending on when it’s taken. It’s not necessarily the best thing although it seems like a solution at the time.”
“What about other forms of birth control? Like the IUD?”
There I was expecting a cautious answer; in pro-life circles, the IUD has been particularly controversial. (A few studies have suggested that intrauterine devices may prevent fertilized eggs from attaching to the wall of the uterus, acting as an in-situ abortion.) While most people in the field dispute this, others are quick to demonize this increasingly popular form of birth control. Real Choices is staunchly anti-IUD: before I left, I extracted a pamphlet from the wall that read the IUD “can have deadly effects on a tiny human being… Be good to yourself. Don’t use the IUD.”
But instead of equating it with infanticide, she said: “I have an IUD… we all have our own stance on that sort of thing.” She personally drew the line between the Mirena (which releases low doses of progestin into the uterus, and was her own birth control method of choice) to the Paragard (which prevents pregnancy by the interaction of copper ions with sperm, and happens to be my birth control method of choice.) “The copper IUD would actually act as an abortive agent,” she explained. I thought sarcastically about all the babies being aborted with my heavy monthly period and wondered how I wasn’t more traumatized.
As for STI’s, she recommended that I get tested regularly. “If you change partners or if you feel maybe he’s being unfaithful or if you have an experience or something like that, you want to make sure that you get rechecked, and then as a general rule even with the same person you want to go once a year.” That is pretty sound and standard medical advise—she didn’t use that as a tool to try to scare me into abstinence. In fact she never really tried to pressure me into celibacy, or shamed me for being sexually active—she was pretty non-judgmental, actually. After the pregnancy test came back negative (surprise!), I grabbed as much literature as I could get my hands and left—but I was a little disconcerted by how gracious she had been to me.
Although I knew that her position on acceptable sexual conduct was far more conservative than my own, she never made me feel like she thought I was wrong or immoral. Overall, she was extremely supportive—before I left, she even gave me her personal cell-phone number, in case I had any other concerns or questions after hours. So, overall, my experience with the staff at Real Choices was surprisingly progressive—especially compared to its organizational principles. Was my experience unbiased? No. Medically accurate? Definitely not. Would I ever refer someone there for a pregnancy test, an ultrasound, or any medical/ psychological services? Never. But, I wouldn’t necessarily feel conflicted about recommending it to a friend who had already decided to continue her pregnancy. Real Choices is one of the only places in Boulder to offer free prenatal services: they assist expecting mothers with buying baby-gear, offer classes on everything from breastfeeding to postpartum depression, as well as classes on money management and roommate conflict resolution. And there’s at least one staff member there who, instead of jamming a deleterious right-wing agenda down your throat, will treat you with compassion, respect, and support.