Emergency Contraception, or, Making the Personal Political

July 6, 2007


A couple days ago I was at work when I got an email from a friend titled “Help!” She had realized she’d forgotten to take her birth control for the last few days and needed to get Emergency Contraception, but the closest Planned Parenthood (where EC is some $15 cheaper than at CVS) was in the West Village—a thirty minute train ride for her, but simply a decent walk from my office in Soho. Would I go pick it up for her?

Well, of course. You don’t refuse a favor of such magnitude–who wants to feel responsible for someone’s unwanted pregnancy? Yikes! But it was with my share of annoyance that I took the 25 minute excursion on my lunch break, to the Planned Parenthood on Bleecker. I attempted to charm the surly security guards, but they weren’t having it. “What do you want?” one of them yelled, while a couple people checked in ahead of me. “Um, I need some emergency contraception!!!” What else would I want? An abortion? Could you be the tiniest bit more discreet please?

Inside, the clinic was not the warm and fuzzy place I remembered from my tour of the Planned Parenthood in Springfield, MA. Except for the sweet young guy handing out brown paper bags of EC for $30 a pop, the whole place felt pretty cold, ugly, and formal. I got the goods, smiled insistently at the security guards, and left the building. After work, I waited for my friend outside my office, still grumpy. Why couldn’t her boyfriend have gotten this for her? Doesn’t he live in the West Village? Don’t they have a system for goodness’ sake? And couldn’t she be on time to meet me? I had agreed to do this favor, but I still wanted the right to complain about it.

Besides the fact that I was being a sour puss, I was also stumbling into sticky ethical territory. I needed to check myself and my bad mood, because this wasn’t your typical inconvenient request. It wasn’t driving her to the airport or spotting her cash at dinner. This was about her reproductive health, and the way I now behaved was in fact a matter of principle. As her friend, as a woman, and also as someone who shared many of her values and beliefs about sexuality, my only role here needed to be one of support.

After all, I think of exactly this situation as evidence of a larger problem. Women bear the burden of reproduction exclusively, and they are also alone in facing the consequences of sex. It’s like every time a woman has sex and something doesn’t go quite as planned (or indeed isn’t planned), her body is suddenly put in peril. This is our pitfall on the path to having sex like men.

I respected my friend’s caution about her body and sympathized with her panic. I was happy that she had the sense and wherewithal to deal with the situation–so many women don’t, and Lord knows they don’t make it easy for us. In fact, as I was leaving the clinic, it occurred to me that I ought to have picked some up for myself to have on hand in an emergency; we all should. It wasn’t my business why she had or hadn’t asked her boyfriend to get it, or how she had managed to forget her pill, or whether she had taken EC before. None of that was my business. Questions like that inevitably carry this undertone of judgment, that creeps too easily into our habitual gossip. I have no interest in judging my friends or indeed anyone on matters of sexuality and health. I just needed to remind myself of that as I waited on Greene St., and, when she came, I handed over the EC with a smile. These things are tricky: although it ought to be, it’s not always instinctive to live your personal life according to your principles.

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