My so-called life
Touring local pregnancy-prevention centers incognito leaves our correspondent more than a bit tattered
The tedious stack of paperwork filled out and nothing else to do but stare blankly around the waiting room, I sat uncomfortably in the hard-blue plastic chair, just another of the dozens of young anxious women with expressionless looks on their faces. Not even Good Day America’s re-airing of Britney Spear’s latest exploits could draw us from our bored dazes.
So, trapped in my own thoughts, I silently repeated what I would tell my nurse once I was called in. It was a tale many young women can relate to: I thought I was being safe. The condom broke. My period eventually came, but I don’t want to be scared like that again. How can I make sure I don’t find myself in the same situation?
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how one sees it, I hadn’t really had sex recently, safe or otherwise. Unlike most women in the waiting room, I had no reason to believe I might be pregnant. I was at my local Planned Parenthood office for the same reason I would visit other Sacramento pregnancy-prevention centers over the next few days: pure research. I wanted to know what the faceless, young and sexually active women who came through the doors were being told about their birth-control options.
What it came down to at Planned Parenthood was reading and re-reading dozens of informational sheets the agency provides before speaking with a nurse. There was plenty of reading material. Not only did I receive a brightly colored birth-control chart, I also was given a detailed informational sheet about emergency contraceptive pills (also known as Plan B). The sheet explained when I should take the pill (75-89 hours after unprotected sex), how effective they are (75 percent if taken within the first 72 hours), its side effects and whether or not they will help end a pregnancy (they don’t). Since I had not set up an appointment, I had enough time and then some to carefully examine each sheet.
Once inside the private nursing room, I quickly was asked by the nurse which birth-control method interested me. Despite the hurriedness of the actual meeting, every question I asked was answered in detail. I was offered STD testing; and they even urged me to return if I had any other questions about birth control. Staff members never mentioned the word “abortion” nor did they hand me information about it.
The routine was pretty much the same the next day at Women’s Health Specialists, another local full-service reproductive clinic. Rather than brochures, my birth-control options were explained by a living, breathing nurse, who also ran down the pros and cons of each. She never mentioned abortion, although that was on her list of birth-control methods.
The most useful information the nurse provided was clarification on what the percentages of effectiveness meant. “If something is 95 percent effective, that means about 5 percent of women using it will get pregnant,” she said. To better guarantee against pregnancy, she suggested using several different methods at once—like tracking my fertility, getting on the pill and continuing to use condoms. Rather than decide on the spot which method to use, she recommended looking over the information I received and returning once I’d decided.
Both clinics appeared committed to the people who passed through their doors and very willing to overload confused young women with more than enough information to make educated decisions about their birth-control options. Each was also very busy, so much so that I was quickly shuttled out so the nurses could handle the next patient.
Neither facility prepared me for what I was about to encounter.
Sacramento Life Center, which is located only two minutes away from the Planned Parenthood I previously visited, is like many crisis centers, working mostly with women who already have become pregnant. This became evident when staffers seemed a little thrown back that I was there for birth-control information, not because I was pregnant.
I was directed to a cluster of chairs next to a stack of children’s toys. I was only there momentarily, when my counselor “Beth” arrived to take me to a small but well-furnished room. Details about birth control were not going to be talked about, “Beth” informed me, but she said she would give me information I could take to my doctor.
Instead of talking about pregnancy prevention, “Beth” devoted the first half of our conversation to my personal life. She wanted to know everything about me, my family and, most of all, the unknowingly fake boyfriend who caused me to come to the crisis center. I told her the story I repeated to the other clinics, but she wanted to know more, such as where I met him, whether I’d introduced him to my parents, and the kicker: “How many people have you and he slept with?”
The last question was followed by, “How do you know he isn’t lying to you?” I felt as if I ought to defend my fake boyfriend.
She asked how long we’d been together. “Three months,” I answered, drawing on facts from a previous relationship. She proceeded to tell me, kindly, that was not a sufficient length of time to become sexually involved with someone, and began talking about how she waited until marriage and it made her life that more fulfilling.
“Women these days just take sex too lightly,” she said.
While I appreciated her trying to get to know me, in the end I felt I was being judged. Obviously, I was just another slutty woman who took sex too lightly. A weaker person might have bought it.
Once the talk moved into actual pregnancy prevention, “Beth” focused on abstinence. Though she did provide sexual health information that is correct (yes, thousands of people do have sexually transmitted diseases), she also told me information I knew was wrong.
“Chlamydia causes HPV,” she said.
Chlamydia is a bacteria and HPV, the human papilloma virus is, as its name would suggest, a virus. One does not cause the other.
“Birth control is not effective,” she added.
A card outside the lobby stated that condoms are 15 percent ineffective. But that would mean they are effective for at least 85 percent of the women who use them. Obviously, they were emphasizing the scariest spin.
If I wasn’t going to choose abstinence, “Beth” suggested I take a natural family-planning class to track my ovulation. While using condoms and methods are not effective and can lead to STDs, all-natural tracking was apparently OK. Unfortunately, according to the FDA, natural family planning has a typical 20 percent failure rate—something that “Beth” did not mention.
Abortion was explicitly talked about, since this was crisis center, and she told me—in case something does happen—to come back and visit them about my options. Unfortunately, if a girl like me actually took her suggestion and used strict ovulation tracking, she might find herself back here sooner rather than later.
I expected the same dose of misinformation when I walked into the second life center, Alternative Pregnancy Resource Center. Waiting to talk to the front-office assistant, I recognized the same brochures I was eagerly handed at the Sacramento Life Center. The office I was taken to looked the same as well: one couch, two chairs and a lamp.
But to my relief, the counseling volunteer didn’t ask me details about my relationship. And while she did promote abstinence, she also suggested I speak to my doctor about birth control if I decided to continue being sexually active. This center did not provide information about birth control, but she didn’t denounce its effectiveness.
Instead of warning me about the ineffectiveness of birth control, she spoke about the problems of having sex outside of marriage. Premarital sex, she said, will expose me to dozens of STDs and will lead to poor intimacy in relationships—because once a man has sex with a girl like me, I will be nothing more than just another notch in his belt.
“Men and women are just different,” she said. “Men tend to see it as just sex while women create this emotional connection.” Men didn’t fare so well in the pamphlet she gave me, either. It made them seem like sex-crazed animals whose one and only mission was to trick women into having sex with them.
“Not to insult men, but that’s just how God made them,” she said.
While she didn’t offer any advice that would lead me to get knocked up, I did leave the center with plenty of sheets and brochures that skewed scientific information to scare me into not having sex. I was also handed a copy of the New Testament that included a not-so-lovely introduction about how God doesn’t want me to have an abortion.
After my visits to the life centers, I wondered about young women with no health insurance or funds for personal visits with a doctor; women who must choose between being informed hyper-quickly or being misinformed. Traditional reproductive health-care providers seem overwhelmed and the “life centers” boil everything down to one option: “Don’t!” It’s no small wonder so many young women decide to just take their chances—the most frightening choice of all.