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Shannon Bradley-Colleary Headshot

Abstinence Got Me Pregnant

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"Are there any side effects to going off the pill?" I asked Dr. Frankenweiller, my OB/GYN.

"Yes," he replied, "Pregnancy."

And he was right. One month to the day after going off the pill, I was pregnant. I blame it on deciding to practice abstinence.

Let me backtrack.

My father ruined any shot I had at teen pregnancy the night senior second baseman Mike Sheridan came to call at our home and my dad answered the door conveniently cleaning his Magnum .45. I was Homecoming Queen of Upland High School in 1983 and I couldn't get a date. There wasn't any boy brave enough to attempt to steal my virginity, they were all pretty sure my dad wasn't afraid of going to jail.

So it wasn't until college, when I fell in love with my first boyfriend freshman year, that I relinquished my virginity behind a couch amidst a sea of Cheez-It crumbs in an off-campus apartment while my boyfriend's roommates farted and belched like cannon-fire in adjacent rooms.

"So this is sex?" I thought. "This is what everyone's talking about? It's so lame!" First time sex is, by definition, awkward. We did not use contraception the first time we had sex. We didn't use contraception because I was, up until that point, abstinent. Despite all of the kissing and petting and steaming up of car windows in that first month of our relationship, I hadn't made up my mind to have intercourse. I expected to be more premeditated and rational about it. Picking a date together and a place -- I'd really hoped for a fern-draped cave just off the Blue Lagoon -- so when the time came, somewhat unexpectedly, I wasn't prepared.

And let me say this: My boyfriend was in love with me and he was responsible (as far as any 20-year-old young man can be), but protection wasn't as high on his list in the heat of the moment because he couldn't get pregnant. MEN CAN'T GET PREGNANT. So when their hormones take over, the consequences seem much further removed.

I quickly began taking the birth control pill, conceding that I was not going to be abstinent as much as I thought I should be, and thankfully we did not get pregnant from our first time.

Which brings me to my point: I believe sex should NOT BE a MORAL ISSUE, it should be a PRACTICAL ISSUE.

Contraceptives to avoid STDs and pregnancy. Waiting for a lover who cares about you to mitigate heartbreak (although I suspect a little heartbreak in a lifetime is unavoidable).

That 19-year-old girl behind the couch believed sex was a moral issue. I thought if I had sex before marriage I was a slut, a whore and would be judged by God. Hence, I took no precautions and hoped I would be able to abstain. I fell madly in love and, try as I might to keep our relationship vertical, I failed -- as do a vast majority of perfectly intelligent young men and women.

I think making sex a moral issue, with abstinence as its mascot, encourages furtive behavior. Oh, there are names I could fling about (Ted Haggard -- abstinence proponent who has sex with male prostitutes while snorting meth), but I'll try to keep the politics personal.

I used the birth control pill for the next five years in my first relationship. When that relationship ended, I became a bit of a serial monogamist. At the end of a third unsuccessful relationship, I took stock and realized that at 25, I had no idea what I was doing with men. My heart had been broken and I'd broken a couple of hearts. I decided to take a big step back, a leave of absence as it were. In a word, I decided to be abstinent once again.

I had that conversation with my OB/GYN and despite his warnings that a side-effect of discontinuing use of the birth control pill was pregnancy, I stopped taking it anyhow.

I did very well until...

One of the young men whose heart I'd broken wouldn't give up. He loved me in a wild, passionate, willing-to-make-a-fool-of-himself way. I'd find roses on my windshield after work. Poetry on my answering machine. Declarations of love on bended knee in the mildewy bus boy's station at the restaurant where we both worked.

Then one night, he appeared at my door bearing a Christmas gift. I told him I couldn't take his Christmas gift. It came in a blue Tiffany's box. I told him he was crazy, that he couldn't afford that on a food expediter's salary (he'd been demoted from waiter). I opened it and inside was a small, simple silver heart. He'd bought one for me and one just like it for his 10-year old sister.

I think you may suspect what happened next.

Suffice to say in the heat of the moment, we hoped the rhythm method would work. Two weeks later I was pregnant. I would say "we" were pregnant, but it really was only me. I was and am still pro-choice. I knew I had options. I considered them all, including marriage, which this young man sweetly offered. But I never had to make a choice, because the morning the United States began its bombing of Iraq in the First Gulf War, I began to miscarry. I was surprised at the sense of loss I felt for this unwanted pregnancy, but was also grateful to be spared making a choice that might haunt me the rest of my days.

I think "abstinence only" flies in the face of nature and the biological imperative. People who choose abstinence as a self-protective measure have my admiration, because I was incapable of doing so. But making abstinence a moral imperative just breeds shame, self-loathing and, more often than not, failure to live up to the ideal.

When I was 36 and 38 I gave birth to my two beautiful daughters. They came at just the right time, with exactly the right partner, my husband Henry. That wouldn't have been possible without birth control. I hope both of my daughters will wait until a ripe old age (35?) before they engage in sexual activity and I hope they will only give themselves to men who cherish them, but when they're in high school I'll be taking them to Planned Parenthood. No shame. No blame. Knowledge is power.