Iowan Gives Thanks for Daughter — and for Choice

Lynda Waddington

While millions of Americans are either celebrating or grieving the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision today, 25-year-old Katie Wilkins credits the law for the 5-year-old girl playing outside her kitchen window.

While millions of Americans are either celebrating or grieving the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision today, 25-year-old Katie Wilkins credits the law for the 5-year-old girl playing outside her kitchen window.

It's been nearly six years since Wilkins, a recent college graduate, locked herself in her parents' bathroom and watched a blue line slowly appear on a pregnancy test she had placed on the vanity. It was a moment that not only changed her life, but changed the way she viewed abortion.

"I say that — that it changed the way I think about abortion because it was a woman at the abortion clinic who gave me courage," she said. "The woman who was supposed to help me get an abortion was the first person in my life to tell me that I had a choice and that only I could make that choice. She helped me make the decision that was right for me."

Wilkins paused, looked out the window to check on her daughter and smiled before saying she would start from the beginning.

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"I was scared," she admitted. "My family wasn't overly religious, but we went to church. As far as I knew, my family thought abortion was the equivalent of murder. Because of that, I was pretty much resigned that I was going to have a baby. There were simply no other options."

When Wilkins worked up enough courage to tell her mother about the pregnancy, however, it quickly became clear that her mother thought abortion was the best option.

"She sat for several minutes and took it all in," Wilkins said. "Obviously, she wasn't happy. Although I was engaged, I wasn't married. When she began talking, her first words were about my college scholarship. Then she began talking about other things — the big wedding, the time my fiance and I should be spending as a couple. It was just weird. It was like she wasn't talking to me as much as she was talking to herself."

It was at the end of that conversation that Wilkins' mother said the word abortion.

"She said the word and her eyes lit up," Wilkins said. "It was like she had just found the most amazing answer to a huge problem. I was completely against it and I told her so, but she still picked up the phone book and made a couple of calls."

Wilkins told her fiance about the conversation with her mother, expecting to find moral support for her decision to continue the pregnancy.

"He bowed his head and I could tell he was thinking about something serious," she said. "I thought he was maybe thinking of ways to calm himself down because he was so angry with my mom."

When he looked at her again, her fiance told her he also agreed that she should have an abortion.

"I was shocked and crying," she said. "He and my mom were the two people I most loved and trusted and both of them were telling me to do something I didn't want to do. Both of them were telling me that I had no choice, that it was for the best. What could I do?"

Wilkins went with her mother and her fiance to the clinic for the abortion. She said that when the day finally arrived, she had "cried herself out."

"I was basically a walking zombie," she said. "I had spent the past few days trying to convince myself that this was the best thing."

She was called into an office where a counselor began to speak with her about the pregnancy, her medical history and the scheduled procedure.

"I didn't break down or anything," Wilkins said. "I didn't scream out or start crying, but somehow she knew. She began to question me about why I was there and what I wanted. I finally told her the truth — that my family and fiance thought having an abortion was best. She sat down her clipboard and moved her chair over so that we were sitting almost nose-to-nose. 'Katie, what do you think?' she asked me. I did begin to cry then. It was the first time anyone had asked me what I thought or what I wanted."

The two women spoke for several minutes before inviting Wilkins' mother and fiance to hear the change of plans.

"I told them that I was not going to have an abortion," she said. "They tried to protest, but the counselor asked them to just listen. I told them everything and then I explained that this was my body, my life and my choice."

A few months later, Wilkins gave birth to a healthy daughter. She moved out of her parents' home while pregnant, but remains close with her family. She and her mother have managed to heal their relationship and Wilkins says both her parents adore their granddaughter. Unfortunately, she and her fiance were not as lucky, although he continues to provide financially for the child. Her life, she says, isn't perfect and isn't easy, but she's satisfied and working to improve things. Some people might think, after listening to Wilkins' experiences, that she'd be against abortion.

"No, not at all," she said. "That's why they call it 'choice' and I'm more than happy to support any woman whatever her choice may be. Just because it wasn't the right choice for me, doesn't mean it isn't the right choice for someone else. I think that's what many who support and oppose abortion have forgotten."

Roe v. Wade, she says, isn't really about or limited to abortion.

"The decision handed down by the Supreme Court was done as a reaction to abortion, but it really, I think, speaks about medical privacy and medical choice in general," Wilkins said. "The court said, basically, no person can force another person to have a medical procedure against his or her will. It also said that each of us have a right to care for and make decisions based on our own well-being. Finally, we should all be able to make those decisions as publicly or as privately as we wish."

Most people, she said, only see what they want to see about her situation.

"There are some who are against abortion that think I'm going to be their best friend after they've heard my story," she said. "There are others who are open to abortion who want to paint my family and fiance as villians after hearing it. They are both wrong. I'm no more a saint than any other woman. I'm just a woman who took advantage of the choices afforded to me — a choice I'm extremely thankful for."

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

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