Saturday, March 17, 2012

When Women Need the Pill


I remember falling to the floor when I felt a sharp, jabbing pain in my lower abdomen. I curled up into a ball and could hardly move. All I could think was "Oh my God!" and then my mind went blank as I tried to remain conscious. I was only about 16 and didn't know what this pain was, but I knew something was very wrong.

Before that moment, I had only experienced normal pain. The burn of a skinned knee, a mind-numbing headache, or even the pain of having a tooth prematurely pulled as I started my orthodontic adventures. But this was different. You know when you have a pain that should get medical attention. These knife-like pains were preceded by years of irregular menstrual cycles, and I’ll spare you the gory and humiliating details about that!

The quick answer the doctors gave me was birth control pills. For me, the fact that the medication I so desperately needed curtailed my fertility was a side effect that I didn't want or ask for. The medication, however, allowed me to live a normal life. It curtailed my problems enough to get me through school and work.

A few years went by and I converted to Catholicism. The Church opposes contraception. I was not contracepting, but I nevertheless had an issue to come to terms with because of my illness.

After years of GYN and endocrinology visits, I pressed my doctors for an explanation of what was wrong with me. They decided that I had Poly-Cystic-Ovarian-Syndrome (PCOS) - an odd syndrome with a wide variety of symptoms. Although the name implies that a woman must have cysts to get the diagnosis, not all PCOSers have cysts. The root cause is mainly hormonal and it’s most common in women of Jewish and Mediterranean descent. I'm half Greek, so that jived for me.

With my diagnosis in hand, I could get my prescribed medication, even from Catholic GYNs. However, it didn't change the fact that I felt left out in the cold when it came to Catholic conversations about contraception. My illness meant that much of the talk didn't apply to me and I actually felt guilty for being sick! I always felt encouraged to learn the “party line” on contraception for the sake of all of the “normal” women around me. Some people admitted that this was a selfish request on their part, but it didn’t stop them from making it. I didn’t have a lot of support when it came to coping with my individual problem.

When my husband and I got to pre-cana, contraception was discussed and there was no mention of women with illnesses who need to take the Pill. My husband angrily scribbled a note at the end, pointing out that if they are going to have couples stand up and go on diatribes against contraception, they should at least have the sensitivity to mention women with illnesses who must take the Pill.

You might say, "Well, contraception is different from taking the Pill for medical reasons. What's the problem here? Just do NFP while you are on the Pill so that you are not contracepting." Yeah - I know - but guess what? NFP can be inexact, and the fact is that you never quite know what the results of taking the Pill are. So the whole issue becomes muddled and anxiety-ridden. It's not a black and white chess game, which means that the constant reminders can have a heavy emotional toll on women who are Catholic and have PCOS.

Later, I went to my Catholic GYN to say that I was getting married and wanted her to know that I would not immediately get off my medication because we were not ready to cope with the possible illness that could strike. This doctor ripped into me for not immediately getting rid of my medicine and trying for a kid immediately. I snapped right back at her for insulting me so rudely, and wound up in the parking lot, crying in my mom's arms. So much for the Church teaching that discernment about spacing children is a personal matter and one that can have a financial and health component. I hope you can hear my cynicism...because I am certainly trying to convey it to you!

At that moment, I decided to never again be so naive about trusting a Catholic physician to help me sort out my issues of conscience because mine had abused it by trying to play God for me. This doctor, who was much admired in my community, had failed me and vividly demonstrated why we have so many "recovering Catholics" running around and others who just don’t care what the Church teaches on women’s health issues at all.

Women with PCOS have escalated health risks from the get go. So, when I read about the negative health impacts of the Pill on women's health, I can honestly tell you that I don't care. It was a God-send to me. As I've gotten older, I've outgrown many of the problems I endured as a younger woman. But, I wonder if the Pill didn't have some role in teaching my body how to function better.

While I support the Church's fight against HHS's unconstitutional restrictions on their ability to practice their faith and obey their conscience, I think it's obnoxious how Catholics routinely ignore the suffering in their own ranks and treat the sick as insignificant and inconvenient nuisances to their theology.

Until Catholics get serious about addressing the suffering of women with PCOS and other associated illnesses, young women will get stuck having to take the Pill because there is no other option for them. We need to push for medical advances and start treating sick women with more respect if we want our theological positions on contraception to influence anyone other than the "uber-Catholics" and hyper-pious.