Guest post: The freedom not to choose birth control

This is a guest post by Gloria Malone. Gloria is a freelance writer, blogger, and teen and young parent advocate based in NYC. You can find her on Twitter and on her personal blog, teenmomnyc.com.

I was 15 years old when I had my daughter. A week after having her I went to my post birth appointment and was told by the doctor that she had already scheduled an insertion appointment for a five year hormonal Mirena IUD all I had to do was say yes and this “super convenient, hassle free, and no pill” form of birth control would be mine. My teenage self agreed and a few days later I had my IUD. However, the process of having it inserted and getting it removed would not be easy, breezy, or hassle free.

It would be years before I realized I was essentially pushed into an IUD because of my age, lack of knowledge on birth control, and her lack of discussing any other options for me expect the only thing on the market closest to temporary sterilization.

My IUD did its job well and during the seven years of having it – two years past the 5 year deadline – I did not have another unintended pregnancy. However, doctor after doctor informed me that my IUD could not be found and was lost inside of my body. With no insurance I did what most uninsured Americans do: I sucked it up and hoped for the best.

When I finally got insurance I went to the doctor to see if they could locate the lost IUD and remove it. While the most important thing on my mind was finding the IUD to make sure it didn’t migrate too far up, was embedded in my uterine wall, or had torn through my uterine wall, the doctors seemed more concerned about what was going to be my next form of birth control.

At first I welcomed their questions.

As someone who feels more physicians and patients need to discuss birth control options, I was glad to see doctors having that conversation but when the questions over arched the concern of the lost IUD that was causing me extreme pain I became frustrated. It seemed that all these doctors cared about was how I was going to make sure I wouldn’t procreate.

Every time I was asked what form of birth control I wanted next – even after they read my chart and saw I did not want any – the conversation felt more like an interrogation:

*Strange look from doctor*

Me: Yes, I’m sure.

Dr.: What are you going to do if you have intercourse?

Me: I haven’t had intercourse in years, don’t plan on it, and when I do feel I will become sexually active again I will consider my options then. Plus there are always condoms, which are the only form of birth control that protect against sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy.

Dr.: You don’t WANT any other baby do you? You don’t want another unintended pregnancy right? Why are not wanting more birth control?

*I’d stare at them with a blank stare and usually repeat what I just said*

Dr.: Okay. Be sure to make an appointment with our family planning department before you leave. *Passes me birth control pamphlets and tells me to reconsider*

Choice and access to women’s health services are just as important as respecting the decisions women and women alone make about their reproductive health choices. Not wanting or refusing birth control is no different. It’s my personal choice and not one I should be interrogated over.

While we advocate for access and choice let us not forget that refusing birth control is a decision that should be respected just as much as the decision to start birth control, terminate a pregnancy, or anything else a women chooses to do with her body.

Remember the days of forced sterilization and eugenics on predominately woman, and more specifically women of color are not a distant history.

Eugenics and forced sterilizations were–and in some countries continue to be–a way to breed out “genetically inferior traits.”

Women and men alike were often sterilized without their knowledge or consent.  Homes for the mentally handicapped had especially high rates of forced, while, as Juliana wrote last month, Latin@s accounted for approximately “20-30% of the 60,000 people who were coercively sterilized in the U.S., mostly in mental institutions in California. The majority of these people were women who were labeled as ‘bad girls’ or ‘sexually wayward’: in other words, women who didn’t follow the strict social norms set forth at the time.”

As recently as 1974 people all over the United States were legally sterilized by force–and the practice continues today, from hospitals to prisons, despite laws banning such abuse. Recognition of the lasting harm of such sterilizations is growing: In 2012 North Carolina finally decided that the state would compensate $50,000 to each survivor of forced sterilization. However, for survivors–many of whom were forced into sterilizations to qualify for much–needed public assistance–monetary compensation doesn’t begin to heal these wounds.

Choice is multifaceted. Let’s all remember that respecting one’s decision to choose not to use birth control is part of the fight.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted July 3, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this. Although I have never been pregnant, I have chosen to stay off bc for most of my adult life. I tried the pill in my early 20s for about 6 months and hated it. I tried the nuvaring in my late 20s, again for 6-8 months and again hated it. I am now in my early 30s and just last week was asked how I could “know” that I wasn’t pregnant by a doctor with whom I was discussing possible medicinal interactions. (I am married, so sure, there’s a possibility, but we use condoms and I had just finished my period. So yes, I “know”.) Doctors often look at me funny when I tell them I have no desire to use hormonal bc, because I “know” how badly it messes with my body. (In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m still recovering from the last time I was on it 2 years ago.) The midwife that prescribed the nuvaring treated me like I was being a big baby for not “toughing it out” through all the terrible side-effects.

    So, I guess my long story is to ask a short question (with probably a longer answer): how do we get doctors to listen to us and trust our instincts/knowledge about our own bodies?

  2. Posted July 3, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    When I moved to the bay area for my first job out of college, I found myself a new doctor. She seemed really awesome at first, but I ended up feeling very alienated when the subject of sexual activity and birth control came up. At 21, I had never been sexually active (and had no immediate plans to change that), but my doctor clearly didn’t believe me. During my first exam, she brought up several stories about other teenagers in her care who would lie to her out of embarassment or worry about parents and she kept pushing me to rethink my current method of birth control (abstinence). At the time I was already really self conscious that I’d never had sex (and had no real prospects on that changing) and it was very hurtful to have someone think I *must* be lying since I was already 21. I was amused/irritated that she thought I was being too shy or felt guilty, when it was the exact opposite… after that first appointment I wished I had just lied from the start and made up a fake sexual history so that I would fit her idea of what was “normal.” For various reasons I ended up sticking with that doctor for the next few years, but continued to feel very judged–despite the fact that abstinence was a perfectly effective, legitimate and REAL(!) method of birth control at that point in my life.

    • Posted July 3, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I lost my virginity when I was 21, I don’t know what is so far-fetched about someone losing it at, or after, that age.

  3. Posted July 3, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Actually, NC DID NOT compensate the eugenics survivors. I know – it’s WILD to imagine denying them even that. Bev Perdue started the Justice for NC victims of eugenics, but the houses went super conservative in 2010 and voted against the compensation because a bunch of rich white men decided that “money doesn’t make it right” or some bull like that. It’s wrong, but don’t worry!! We don’t quit. I just needed everyone to know that North Carolina CAN’T DO ANYTHING RIGHT these days.

  4. Posted July 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this! I’ve been struggling for years with the social guilt that I’m not on a medical/hormonal form of BC. My fiance and I have had several family planning conversations already. We use condoms religiously, but I am hesitant to try hormonal BC again.

    I had an awful experience with the pill when I was 16. I wasn’t even having sex, but my mom insisted that I try the pill to fix my “mood swings”. I remember the doctor questioning me about my sexual intentions. When the pill made me even more emotional (lots and LOTS of crying), they put me on anti-depressants on top of the pill. I remember saying multiple times, to my doctor and my mother, that I wanted to go off the pill. To this day I don’t think I was actually depressed or moody, I was just a regular teenager. But everyone insisted that I stay on BC, so I suffered for about a year. When I was almost 18, I decided to quit everything cold turkey.

    It’s definitely nice to have the choice, but there is a lot of pressure to make “the right” (hormonal) choice. Even planned parenthood doctors have tried to push The Pill

  5. Posted July 3, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    You know what we really need? Chemical BC for men. So this isn’t just a woman’s problem anymore.

    • Posted July 7, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      The most promising upcoming contender, Vasalgel, is non-hormonal (it’s a polymer gel injected into the vas deferens), but yes, absolutely. It’s worth noting that, as caracolita remarks below, if a man or couple is completely sure they do not want any children, a vasectomy is by far the best current solution.

  6. Posted July 3, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you on this. I’ve always been on some form of birth control for my endometriosis and haven’t had the option to go off really. I even had a psychiatrist tell me I could NOT stop taking birth control because I didn’t know how to control my hormonal mood swings. *sigh* The “condition of being woman.” However, after almost having a stroke, I stopped taking birth control, started tracking my own periods and realized, after about a month or two of adjustment, I could control my own mood swings (anticipation) and that birth control was actually making them worse! BC was making me go crazy and not being on it was the best decision ever.

  7. Posted July 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this important article. When did the term “birth control” become synonymous with “hormonal birth control”? When did hormonal birth control become about more than pregnancy prevention and instead a treatment or cure-all for any problem associated with being female? Even if you’re not having sex you’re expected to take the pill to “regulate” your cycle or avoid acne or prevent mood swings. Also, when will we see fertility awareness or natural family planning accepted as effective and legitimate choices for pregnancy prevention rather than having them classed as “not using birth control”? Why are we okay with devaluing and dismissing condom use through the dominance of hormonal birth control?

    I deal with this subject in my forthcoming book ‘Sweetening the Pill or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control.’ See http://www.facebook.com/sweeteningthepill and http://www.sweeteningthepill.com

    Thanks again for writing about this and thanks to Feministing for publishing.

  8. Posted July 7, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. I think pushing IUDs on very young women is another kind of paternalistic control of sexuality, for lack of comprehensive and practical sexual education and empowerment. When you’re so young, you’ll do what they tell you because you don’t know the options or your body. I was on a pill at 18, hated it, quit. Did the same thing again when I was 21. In between horrible pill episodes, I used abstinence, condoms, and plan B. Hormones do strange things to the body. I’ve been on 4 different pills, and I finally found the one I like. I’m married now, and you know what my long term birth control plan is after I have the kids? Vasectomy for my husband. Birth control is not a burden I plan on bearing alone nor should I be expected to endure 40 years artificial hormones or implants.

  9. Posted July 17, 2013 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    Your article is very enlightening. I never thought of choice in that way before. I had an abortion in college after using zero contraception. It was the one and only time I didn’t use any. We were drunken friends who were lonely and made a mistake. After going through the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy, I made up my mind I would never go through that again. For a year after the abortion I was celibate. Upon entering a monogamous relationship, I went on the Pill. It took much trial and error to find the right one for me. But after being on it for awhile, I decided I was tired of being on extra hormones. I broke up with the man and was celibate for three years. I met my husband and we agreed we don’t want kids EVER. So, I am using the Paragard Copper T IUD, which has no hormones and lasts up to 12 years. Eventually my husband will get a vasectomy, but until then, I love my IUD. But I really am glad you wrote this piece because it really made me stop and think about what CHOICE really means. Thank you.

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