02/21/2012 11:39 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

Nurture vs. Nothing: How Contraception Saves Lives

Many may be baffled by the current political debate about contraception, but for many women like me, these bishops and politicians may as well be sitting in my living room having a cup of coffee. This debate is personal and will impact the lives of real women and girls. Several decades ago I was a very scared and pregnant 16-year-old girl attending Catholic school. Although I was not Catholic, my grandmother, a devout Christian, thought a Catholic school would be a good place for me. As non-Catholics, my tuition was higher than it was for the Catholic kids. At 16 and pregnant, I didn't know much about my body, how it worked, or how to protect myself from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. However, Sister Dorothy Elaine, the instructor of my religion class, taught me that sex before marriage was a sin, and that I should abstain until marriage. These religious ideas conflicted profoundly with the hormonal surges that were occurring in my developing body. I was a teenaged girl in the hood, with little parental guidance, little proper information, and firing hormones; a recipe for teenaged pregnancy.

Although there was some sex education taught at my school, it was usually provided by nuns who turn a bright beet red when attempting to explain an orgasm. Nearly everything I learned about sex, I learned through trial and error.

The pregnancy came as a surprise. Sharing a room with an aunt, I worked hard to conceal growing breasts, morning sickness, and weight gain. I was simply waiting for the perfect opportunity to skip school in order to have an abortion. This would not be easy, as the school was very strict, requiring a note from one's parents explaining an absence. If there was no note, a staff member would call the student's home. Food cravings, extreme fatigue, and weight gain were becoming increasingly impossible to hide. I was terrified of being pregnant. I was even more afraid of my family finding out.

I will never forget the morning I ate an entire bag of cherries before school, only to find myself in first period nauseous and unable to keep them down. Nervously, I sat at my desk as I listened to Sister Nancy give a lecture in history. Today I can only remember dashing out of class for the bathroom, and the taste of the cherries as they came up and out. The pressure to conceal the pregnancy was starting to get the best of me.

I had a friend drop me off at the clinic the morning of the abortion. I paid for the procedure through Medicare. The Medicare sticker that signified payment is imprinted in my mind. My final memory before being put to sleep was Annie Lennox's voice singing "Would I Lie to You?" coming from the nurses' radio. When I awoke, the pregnancy was no more, and I was deeply relieved. That afternoon I went home to sleep. My aunt and grandma returned home to find that I had not done any chores or homework. Needless to say, the rest of the day was hell to pay.

President Obama's recent mandate to have all employers provide a number of preventative health services, including free contraception to women, is a fundamental shift in women's health care for our nation. This shift will impact those girls and women who previously had limited access to care and services. The stance on contraception of by the Catholic Church, and the support for it shown by Newt Gingrich, John Boehner, and Rick Santorum, reek of entitlement and ignorance and denial of women's needs.

Finally, I find it highly insulting that an organization that has systematically worked to protect child rapists is able to hijack the conversation on contraception. Until the church has satisfactorily (according to the law) addressed each and every case of a child's sexual abuse by a member of the priesthood, I am one woman willing to tell the church to stay out of women's bedrooms and health concerns. You are not wanted here.

I see this debate as an opportunity for women to come out of the shadows and silence about our care and our natural desires for sexual freedom. The days of teaching our daughters to be ashamed of their sensuality are over. Religious organizations do not have the final word on our needs and behaviors, especially those like the Catholic Church, which is led by men who have sworn themselves to a life of celibacy. This is our opportunity to begin teaching ourselves and our daughters about the natural and organic call to sensuality and sex, which has historically been shrouded in shame and fear. Teaching our daughters to abstain from sex until marriage, without giving them information about their growing desire for sex and the science of reproduction, is foolish.

Thirty years later, I have no regrets because that experience served to teach me more about myself, the consequence of choices and the value of information. When I was 16, I didn't know how to love and accept my body and the changes that were occurring within me. I had been taught to reject myself, which resulted in years of sexual shame and promiscuity. I hope my experience can help other women, young and old, to awaken to our true value. This political debate about women's contraception is not occurring in a vacuum. There are thousands of women, like myself, who have been affected by this culture of ignorance and denial perpetuated by these Catholic bishops, their political supporters and women. This debate is so personal to every woman, it's as if they are having coffee in our living rooms discussing and deciding what is right and acceptable for us. It is important we put faces and real experiences to these conversations, so that we may begin choosing empowerment for ourselves. I believe that when women claim their power and begin accepting and loving themselves, these patronizing, misguided conversations will cease to occur.