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Bodily autonomy and the information we are not given

This post is sparked by my personal experience (it’s Amy here, in case my hilarious t-shirt below didn’t give that away) and also from listening to women talk about their journeys with contraception.
 
Grab yourself a brew (and maybe some biscuits) because this is a long, winding road to a very broad but important point – bare with me.
 
 
Let’s talk about contraception (and information and consent and bodily autonomy… because it’s all part of the same point)
 
Being doulas, you might think that the topic of contraception is a little out of our remit but (as I have so succinctly concluded in the subtitle) that is not the case.
 
As doulas and feminists, we respect every woman’s right to choose what is right for her body, so naturally, the topic of being informed and choices being respected is at the very core of what we believe in. Also, being full-spectrum doulas we support women before they are pregnant and long after they give birth so it does come up a fair bit.
 
 
Let’s start with sex education
Way back in school (Elle would like to point out that it wasn’t that long ago for me), we were only ever told about two or three methods of contraception. We learnt a bit about the pill, maybe a bit on the injection and of course, everyone remembers the demonstration of how to put a condom on a cucumber or banana or any other object that doesn’t look like a real penis so that the teacher doesn’t get embarrassed. I’m guessing it wasn’t all that different for you? But this isn’t enough. If you’re going to teach young people about sex and contraception, you have to tell them all of their options and what each one entails. For example, I don’t remember anyone telling us in school that the longer you are on the pill, the longer it could take to get pregnant once you stop taking it. This might seem like a very way-in-the-future conversation to have with children, but who else is going to tell us that? Especially considering lots of women go on the pill from a very young age. “Wouldn’t that be the healthcare professionals job?” I hear you ask… the answer is yes, it definitely is, but that doesn’t mean that they will fulfil that expectation. The other HUGE gap (or if talked about at all, misrepresentation) in sex education is birth, but that’s a whole other rant.
 
My personal experience with contraception
Over a period of about four years, I tried two different types of the pill and the injection before deciding to have a detox because the hormones were having a very negative effect on my mental health. The side-effects are different for everyone but the general consensus of women I have spoken to is that there is at least one pretty rough down-side to every hormonal contraception option.
 
Condoms were the only other option (that I knew of) – our readily available, non-hormonal, trusty, 98% effective friend. However, it took one of these trusty little guys to split for me to end up seeking emergency contraception. For me (and many women have a much worse time of it), that meant I had to wait about 4 hours at a walk-in clinic (feeling alone and nervous), complete an incredibly personal face-to-face questionnaire and brush off several judgemental ‘I don’t believe you’ looks, for someone to finally tell me about the copper coil! I listened intently as they told me how it was hormone-free, had very few side-effects, could stay in for 5 years (some stay in for 10!) but can be removed any time I want, it doesn’t stall fertility after removal, and it is more than 99% effective…
 
 
…SHUT THE FRIDGE!!
 
Why in the hell had nobody taught me about this option before?! I had suffered through years of hormones messing with my brain, my skin, my personality. I got it fitted that day and four years later have not regretted it once. Now, it sounds like I’m just trying to sell you all on the copper coil, that is not my intention. It works for me and I love that, but the point of my rant is…
 
Why did it take so long for someone to tell me all of my options? Who decides which methods of contraception are offered to us first? If we are born into a religion that believes abstinence is the only way – where do we get the information to decide for ourselves? If our parents decide that sex is too difficult a topic and tick the opt-out box on the sex education form, where do we learn about our body and the changes we are going to go through? Why should other people get to decide what information we get about puberty, sex and contraception? It’s the first step towards bodily autonomy and nobody wants to talk about it! Maybe because bodily autonomy isn’t something that society wants us to have. Working as a doula has taught me that.
 
This power play continues throughout our lives, with anything to do with women’s bodies from contraception, boundaries, birth and beyond.
 
(Sorry, it took me a while to get to the point! Have another biscuit…)
 
From a friends experience
A few years ago, before I was no longer shocked by the controls put on women and their bodies, my friend was seeking the morning after pill at a pharmacy. She had gone to the only pharmacy open that Sunday morning, she steeled herself, walked up to the desk in the not-so-private supermarket aisle where the pharmacy is located and told the pharmacist what she wanted to purchase. There was no medical reason for her to be unable to access the morning-after pill, but the pharmacist said no. He said that he could not dispense the pill because of his personal beliefs.
 
 
I couldn’t believe this was legal, especially with something as time-sensitive as the morning-after pill. I furiously googled it and found that yep, apparently, pharmacists have an opt-out clause which gives them the power to inflict their personal views onto others, potentially causing an unwanted pregnancy. Technically, if a pharmacist exercises this ridiculous clause, they are supposed to offer an alternative, but what good is that on a Sunday when nowhere nearby is open and the customer can’t drive? That’s a pretty risky clause to have, don’t you think?
 
So I have a few questions; would a doctor who is a Jehovah’s witness have a clause to opt-out of giving a life-saving blood transfusion because of her/his personal beliefs? Does a doctor who is Jewish have an opt-in clause to enforce circumcision on all babies because of his/her own beliefs? Is the opt-out clause used for anything other than emergency contraception, or is it a clause solely to deny women the right to decide whether or not to have a baby?
 
Now I am wiser I know that actually, professionals impose their personal opinions on women all the time, it’s just usually less obvious. For example, during pregnancy when something is offered to you (because it is just an offer, even if it doesn’t come across that way), that midwife or doctor should be giving you ALL of the information, the risks, benefits and alternatives, for you to make an informed decision about your care. This very rarely happens, and what we can assume from this is that the person giving you the partial information is deciding, based on their personal views, which information is more important for you to know, and what can be left out. This does NOT equal informed consent. 
 
The patriarchal society that we live in has assumed that women’s bodies, and the decisions women make about those bodies, are to be monitored and controlled. Constant protesting of abortion, the hoops we have to jump through to access all types of contraception, the scare-tactics used in pregnancy and the birth room – it is all about controlling women. Strong, independent women who are able to make informed decisions and stand their ground are a threat to that control. Information is power, and withholding information (or more directly, actual medical care such as the morning-after pill), is to take away a woman’s power.
If we take away a woman’s control of her own body, we are telling her that she is not important and that her body is not hers to be in control of.
 
What does this teach young girls and women about consent? What does it teach us about boundaries? What does it teach us about our power?
 
(and yours too, if you want us to!)
 
 
 
 
 
Resources related to this post:
 
– The most recent changes I found on the opt-out clause (2017):
 
– The Lloyd’s Pharmacy article:
 
– Some fascinating for and against comments from pharmacists about the opt-out clause:
 
– The NHS contraception guide:
 
– Info on the copper coil (IUD):