The unmarried couple was in their very early twenties, earnest, frightened and shell-shocked. They had made an appointment for “options counseling”, a session devoted to exploring the three choices available for dealing with an unintended pregnancy: parenting, adoption, abortion. The young lady had found out a few days prior that she was pregnant and they were holy terrified. Yes, I mean holy, not wholly. You see, they were the youth group directors at their church, tasked with setting an example of young Christian adulthood, and teaching abstinence education. Their unintended pregnancy meant not just making a choice, it meant facing their church community with a staggering hypocrisy, and standing in judgement for going against their group’s religious tenets. I had my work cut out for me, as their counselor, and a person vehemently opposed to abstinence-only “education”.
On the double-sided questionnaire we gave to options counseling clients, they had checked “withdrawal” as the sole form of birth control they were utilizing. Most of the questionnaires I came across had that boxed checked along with a few others (condoms, the pill, etc.). In fact, I never saw one that didn’t. After a few weeks of working at the clinic, I came to understand that many of our clients had become pregnant because they lacked accurate medical information about sex and the human body. I realized in these cases, I would be doing a disservice to the client by jumping right into a discussion of the options. I needed to start with providing clinical education, thereby empowering them with the ability to make informed future choices.
The couple sat quietly as I reviewed the form with them. “Do you understand how you became pregnant?” I asked. “No, because we thought we were careful. We knew we shouldn’t be having sex in the first place, and so we never went all the way,” the young man told me, with a wide-eyed, searching look. I found that almost all clients preferred to use euphemisms for sex and body parts, and I made it my business to speak back to them in clinical terms. I asked him if he knew what pre-ejaculate was. No, he did not. Neither did she. I believe very strongly that people have a right and responsibility to understand their own biology, because it helps them live safer, healthier lives. So we started from there. I explained pre-ejaculate and why withdrawal is a very risky form of “birth control”, and that sex (aka all the way) is when the penis enters the vagina, ejaculation or not. They were astonished, and hung on my every word as I went through all the available means of birth control, the pros and cons of each.
“But in your opinion, would it be good for us to get married?” he interjected. She leaned in anxiously, “yes, we want to know, because it will be very hard for us to face our church given the condition we’re in,” she added. “I mean, how can we even manage this, given the fact that we are the people responsible for abstinence education at Sunday school? We don’t believe in sex before marriage, it’s a huge sin, and I just know we’re going to be ostracized.” Her words came out in a rush.
There may as well have been a neon sign flashing above their heads that read “teaching moment” because I was in a situation my professors had been attempting to prepare me for for two years–how do you manage your biases when your beliefs diverge from those of your clients? I looked down at the large silver Jesus fish bracelet adorning the young man’s forearm, and allowed myself a moment of atheistic rage at what I perceived as religion’s role in creating this situation. I took a breath and looked up into their worried, expectant eyes. I told them that from what I understood of their religion, the central messages centered on forgiveness and acceptance, and in such a case, couldn’t they ask for both from their community, in the spirit of Jesus’ teachings? The words felt strange in my mouth. It was a hail-mary pass, 90 yards down the field. They caught it and ran with it. “You know, I think we could,” she said slowly. “Because we want to keep the baby and be parents together. We know abortion or adoption aren’t right for us. We want to raise a baby together in our church, and we’ll just have to tell them that’s what we’re doing.” They looked at each other and nodded, resolved.
“So, do you think we should get married, like would that be the best thing for us and the baby?” They asked me again. I had to tell them that I wasn’t in the business of giving marriage advice, only sex education and an overview of pregnancy options. I encouraged them to talk it over with people they trusted before making the decision. They left my office holding hands, each clutching various pamphlets about birth control, which, they promised me they would study and use to make a decision next time.
I will remember them forever, because they surprised me. Not because of their lack of education about their own bodies, but because they fit the stereotype of our protesters who gathered out front with hideous signage, taunting and harassing women under the cover of religious belief. I was impressed that they understood our clinic was a place for all people to turn during an unintended pregnancy. I thought them courageous for making the appointment, and their willingness to speak to professionals outside their close-knit church community in their search for answers and information. In order to reach them, I had to drop my strong negative views on religion and abstinence-only education. I had to speak their language, and give momentary credence to their views. I found myself hoping they would become stronger Christians as a result of their situation–more open, more readily forgiving and non-judgmental. Maybe they would even challenge their church’s sex-ed policy. They had tested me that afternoon–if we step outside our comfort zone, will you step outside yours?