Beverly Young lives in Cedar Rapids, is 82 and wants to tell you a story. She wants to tell you what it was like to be 25 and have three children and be too poor to afford another. She wants to tell you about having a husband who wouldn’t wear a condom and what it felt like to go to a doctor in 1963 and ask for birth control.
It was humiliating and embarrassing. The doctor blushed when she asked for a “little pill” that would make her stop having babies, as if she’d said something shameful. He wouldn’t write her a prescription. He was Catholic and said it was against his religion.
He recommended another doctor, but Beverly walked out of the office feeling ashamed and judged. It means something to have someone tell you what you are doing is going against “God’s will,” and even now — 57 years later — Beverly is filled with anger and frustration at the memory of the moment.
She and her now ex-husband then went to a doctor for a vasectomy. But it was a Catholic hospital and the doctor refused to give him one unless she signed off on it. “It’s his body!” Beverly told me. “Why did he need my permission? Who are these doctors to judge us? They aren’t medical objections.”
She eventually found a doctor to prescribe birth control, but only because she made it happen.
Beverly worked as a bartender for 50 years and can tell you so many stories about women who weren’t able to get birth control. She has a friend who was in a bad marriage, who self-induced an abortion and got an infection. She lived, but they don’t talk about what happened. Another woman couldn’t afford to have another baby and put hers up for adoption. And still, another woman whose fetus died inside the womb had to face a medical panel before she could get permission to get the fetus removed.
“She lived for days with that dead child inside her, can you imagine?” Beverly said.
I can imagine. So much has changed since 1963 and so much hasn’t. Women no longer have to go to their doctor for birth control. Title X clinics and Planned Parenthood offer birth control for free or reduced costs. The new Planned Parenthood Direct app allows people to request birth control from their phones for only $25.
But so much hasn’t changed. As the state and federal governments cut funding to Planned Parenthood, birth control is harder to access.
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The governor’s replacement family planning program has failed to fill the gaps left by Planned Parenthood. Many of the suggested clinics on the state’s Family Planning Program list don’t even provide birth control, and some are dentist offices or medical labs.
Others are religious centers that call themselves crisis pregnancy centers but provide only pregnancy and STI testings. There are no other qualified medical services, and they definitely don’t offer birth control.
Obria and Bridgehaven are two such centers in Iowa. Obria brands itself as a “medical center,” but its advice and counseling is not based in science.
According to a report by Vox, Obria Chief Executive Officer Kathleen Eaton Bravo has promised never to use hormonal contraception. Instead, the group offers “natural family planning” counseling, which includes menstrual cycle tracking and the pull-out method. These forms of birth control are about 76 to 88 percent effective. Hormonal birth control is 99 percent effective if used as directed.
Obria also offers “abortion pill reversal,” where patients are treated with progesterone. But no controlled studies have shown this method works. And Alice Huling, legal counsel for the Campaign for Accountability, which produced a watchdog report on Obria, compares the “abortion pill reversal” with medical experimentation on patients.
The website for the Obria Clinic in Iowa City is hosted by Informed Choices Iowa, whose website touts abstinence as the only way to prevent STDs and STIs (while condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases).
You’d think a “clinic” focused on 100 percent prevention rates would encourage hormonal birth control as well because it is more effective than natural family planning. But this isn’t about statistics or science, this is about religion.
Informed Choice Iowa offers handouts on its website that quote Bible verses such as Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
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It’s anti-choice propaganda, masquerading as medical advice. And they are receiving $5.1 million over the next three years from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under Title X — a program that recently forced Planned Parenthood out because it refused to stop providing abortion counseling and services.
And there are the hospitals. MercyOne Waterloo Medical Center and Mercy in Cedar Rapids, both Catholic hospitals, are refusing to perform tubal ligations. According to a Rewire story from April 2019, reported by Amy Littlefield, Dubuque Archbishop Michael Jackels issued a directive for Catholic health care services “banning contraceptive implants like IUDs altogether and allowing other forms of hormonal contraception only for medical reasons like heavy bleeding.”
A statement from Mercy Care in Cedar Rapids confirmed its commitment to the archbishop’s directive, noting, “As a hospital, we do not offer services with the sole purpose of sterilization.” Exceptions, the statement noted, are made when it is necessary to “a cure, or to diminish or prevent a serious medical condition.”
The stranglehold of religion over medical choices is paternalistic and harmful to Iowans, who are already facing a health crisis with the closure of Planned Parenthoods and maternity wards across the state.
“We are in a crisis,” said Planned Parenthood’s Erin Davison-Rippey. “And it’s hurting Iowans in an unequal way. For people with money, there is always a way to get birth control. But for people without money, the situation is dire.”
Beverly was that woman 57 years ago. And she doesn’t think it’s gotten much better. “It’s still happening,” she says, and she’s worried.
She knows too many women who carry within their bodies the secrets and shame, pain and scars, meted out by doctors and pastors and priests in 1963.
She sees them still in the neighborhood. And more than anything, she wants, for once, the true freedom of choice.