Several summers ago, when New York City was syrupy with an August heat, I found myself in a place good Christian girls like me had been instructed never to go — down on Bleecker Street, in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood.
I grew up in a conservative Christian environment, the kind that thought evolution was at odds with the scriptures and that fretted about the satanic influence of Harry Potter. At youth group and Sunday school we were frequently warned against the evils of sex before marriage and the slippery slope that ran toward it; we received devotional literature offering guidance on how to maintain one’s purity.
Planned Parenthood was discussed rarely but never positively. We heard about it in terms of the indiscriminate murder of God’s fetuses, of the women who didn’t like condoms and so had hundreds of abortions, of its evil (and, of course, nonexistent) human-tissue trafficking enterprise. A place like that was none of our concern, though; if we stayed pure we had no need of it.
Growing up, I was curious about sex, but I’d never known it to be associated with anything besides sin, so I tried as much as possible to ignore any questions that bubbled to the surface. Abortion was against God’s will, we were taught, and though occasionally it occurred to me that there must be exceptions to every rule (what if the mother’s life was in danger? what about rape?), these questions, too, I suppressed — faith, after all, was all about commitment in the face of doubt. We never discussed methods of contraception, STIs, or healthy relationships outside of marriage. If we were “good,” that information was all irrelevant. I was an A student, eager to please, and it was in my nature to follow the rules, so I never challenged what I’d learned. And anyway, who would I ask?
Abstinence is easy for married youth leaders with waning libidos to preach, and as a socially awkward teenager it was easy enough for me to accept. There was even a certain comfort in the mandate; it imbued my loneliness with purpose. But to be a teenager in love is a different story.
I met him in history class in our senior year of high school. Our chemistry was instantaneous and overwhelming. He was a nerd with a mischievous streak — we’d skip school to go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And there was the kissing. We could kiss for hours, until we were flushed and our lips were chapped and raw. In those moments, the church and its teachings seemed to exist on an increasingly distant plane, but afterward, the shame of having stepped to the edge of that downward slope (and the terrifying notion of God’s omnipresence extending to the backseats of cars) was crippling. My boyfriend had grown up a practicing Catholic, and he too was overcome with guilt in the face of sexual desire. Together we focused our willpower on repressing ourselves so as not to anger the Lord.
We were married before we could legally drink. Finally, we could shed the guilt — sex miraculously transformed from mortal sin to gift from God when we put on those wedding rings. Our faith was stronger than ever. We went to church and joined a new Bible study; we were studious about what it meant to have a Godly marriage. We were a shining example to those younger than us, obedient to His commandments, and for a while we were happy.
Through our first years together we had stayed close to home and church, but then his job sent him to Texas for a six-month stint, and I was accepted to graduate school in New York. We agreed six months apart would be hard, but it was temporary and we didn’t worry too much about the ramifications — marriage, after all, was permanent.
But outside the watchful eye of our community, it didn’t take long for it all to unravel — when I arrived for a visit a few months into our long-distance run, I could tell immediately he was having sex with someone who was not me. The part of his infidelity I could not guess was that the “other woman” was a man, or men, rather, random encounters of the Craigslist variety.
People assumed the revelation of his sexual orientation made the affairs easier to stomach, but in the end it didn’t much matter. I had steered clear of the hatred for gay people that some in the church peddled, and anyway neither a righteous anger nor a scientific rationale could’ve overridden my sadness — he had been my husband and my best friend, and now he wasn’t. I was shocked and devastated in the usual ways; I cried, and lay in bed and could not eat.
I avoided my family, worried they would judge my husband and me for the divorce we were planning, for his sexuality, or some failing of my womanhood or intuition. The few friends I did speak to offered their prayers, but had no concrete advice. I moved into a room share in Washington Heights, two mattresses beside one another on the floor, the other claimed by a Russian woman who sat cross-legged and stared at me through the night. I was new to the city and knew no one well enough to confide in anyone. Most of all I felt betrayed, not only by my husband, but by God and the church — I had tried so hard to follow the rules; I had done what I was supposed to, and still I had ended up alone. Religion had hollowed out a void in my life, but could not pull me from it.
It occurred to me after a while that my husband’s high-risk sex also left me exposed to disease, but I was afraid to go to the doctor. My whole family and many of our church mates attended the Christian-advertised practice, where the doctor had more than once asserted her allegiance to God over patient in her reluctance to prescribe me birth control even after I was married.
So with limited knowledge about sexual health care and nowhere else to turn, I found my way to Planned Parenthood, through the metal detectors and bag search meant to keep patients safe from the threat of violence by Christian extremists. The staff did not look at me with disappointment when I told them I needed to be screened. The nurse was understanding with my questions about the different types of HIV tests and their corresponding exposure windows, was gentle with the needle. That afternoon I received more compassion and support from her than I had from most of my religious community. I was both surprised and relieved that the clinic contained none of the horrors I’d imagined, that it was in fact just a regular doctor’s office with regular humans getting information, medicine, check-ups. It was the first of many moments in which I would learn and relearn that being “Christ-like” — taking care of people no matter who they are or where they come from — had little to do with what went on in the church each week.
Everyone deserves respect and efficacy from their health-care providers, regardless of their choices or circumstances. Yet I can’t help but see my own experience as a microcosm for the way in which the right values ideology over the physical well-being of its constituents. The repealing of the Affordable Care Act, even as the reddest states rely the heaviest upon it, is one example; the proposals to cut the Department of Justice’s Violence Against Women grants and the constant threat to defund Planned Parenthood are others. Yes, some of it is a numbers game, the budget cuts and debt reduction the Republican Party touts. Then there’s the obvious misogyny — prescription birth control, breast and cervical cancer, pregnancy, and abortion are all women’s health issues in which the male-majority lawmakers perceive themselves to have little stake. But I think the most formidable force at play is a belief that a vulnerable person has arrived in her bad situation by her own choice, because she is lazy in her pulling of bootstraps, because she is somehow deficient, or morally bereft. The truth, though, is always more complex, because there is no life devoid of interaction with and interdependence upon one another. Or perhaps there is a simpler way of saying it: Sometimes one can follow all the rules and still need a doctor.
Planned Parenthood helped me at a time no one else would, and the care they provide has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Now, as many of us are beleaguered with uncertainty in the future of our health care and country at large, we need what they have to offer both in literal medicine and figuratively, as a symbol of equity, empathy, and perseverance in the face of constant attack. As long as good Christian girls are made out of flesh and blood, they may well need them, too.