On the Frontlines: A Counselor Addresses a Gauntlet of Lies

Mary Lou Greenberg

By the time a woman arrives at the clinic, she has already thought a lot about her pregnancy and what to do next.  But she still has to run a gauntlet of people questioning her, and confront their lies.

This article originally appeared in On the Issues magazine and is reprinted here with permission.

Several older women stood on the sidewalk a few feet from the entrance to Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York. They aggressively approached every woman who walked towards the door, literally getting in their faces with rosaries and anti-abortion literature in hand.

“Don’t kill your baby,” they implored, planting themselves between the woman and the clinic entrance. “We can help you.”

I had come to Choices to interview head counselor Sophia McCoy, and the first thing I asked was what she thought about the protestors.

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“I walk in past them every day. I can’t be up in arms about them all the time or I couldn’t do my job. But they really upset some of the women.”

McCoy has headed up counseling services at Choices for five years, training other counselors and, herself, talking to dozens of women each day who come to the clinic for abortions, both first and second trimester. “I discuss the abortion procedure with them,” she said, “and make sure they are sure and feel secure about their decision.”

“By the time a woman arrives at Choices,” McCoy said, “she has already thought a lot about her pregnancy and what to do next. A woman’s decision depends a lot on how well she knows her partner, relations with her family, what’s going on in her life…her age, her school, work, health. Most have tried to talk to a close friend or relative. Making that first phone call to the clinic for an appointment can be very scary. And then they get here and run into the protestors.

“Most women are very firm in their decision. They are generally confident about what they want to do with their lives and often have good support for their decision to have an abortion. It’s not easy for protestors to approach these women. I’ve seen women say, ‘get away from me,’ and walk right up to the door. But I’ve also seen women go back and forth, inside to the waiting room and outside to the protestors, sometimes for an hour. These women are generally more ambivalent to begin with, and the protestors have an easier time talking to them. Some are affected by the offers of free baby showers and financial help for diapers. But this often doesn’t last long. The protestors also tell a lot of lies.”

In fact, much of McCoy’s job is to educate women, something that she accomplishes by bringing to bear both her medical training and her own personal experience. She is on the front lines, addressing a gauntlet of lies and a vacuum of accurate information daily.

After a woman comes into the clinic and registers at the front desk, she has a sonogram and blood work. Then she sees a counselor. “If a woman expresses doubts,” McCoy said, “I try to explore her feelings with her, what the pros and cons are of having the procedure, based on who she is, and help her resolve any questions. If she feels sad, I tell her it’s okay to be sad, but the main thing is for her to be sure that this is the right thing for her to do at this time. And it has to be her decision, her choice. It’s only after I’m confident this is the case that she has the procedure.”

“The protestors tell women that we don’t care about them. They say that ambulances come and take women away once or twice a day here, that women have to have hysterectomies after an abortion, that we throw away ‘the baby’ (that’s what they call it) in the garbage afterwards. All of these are just lies. And many women don’t know how their own body functions or about the reproductive process.

“I talk to the women about all this. When a patient comes in and she’s upset, I explain to her the importance of being able to come here and what women went through before abortion was legal. I tell them, ‘Today, abortion is very safe, but it wasn’t always that way.’

“Women are not aware of the history of abortion, that women had to be driven long distances to find a doctor who would do one. Or women would get an illegal and unsafe procedure. I tell them this is why we have to fight to keep abortion legal and a woman’s right.”

The Impact of a Photo – And a Teenager’s Death

When she was about 11 or 12 growing up in Queens, McCoy heard her mother and grandmother talking at home about how difficult it had been to get an abortion before it was legal. She read about it in the pioneering women’s health care book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and saw a photo that she could never forget. It was of a woman lying on a motel room floor who had died from an illegal abortion (now known to be a picture of Gerri Santoro.) After high school when McCoy was an accounting student, she heard about a fellow student who had tried to use a bottle to terminate her pregnancy.

“The topic just kept coming up,” McCoy recalled. “You know how you hear a lot of stories growing up, and some things jump out at you and eventually it all takes shape. Well, these stories stayed with me, and I knew I needed to be part of not letting this happen again.”

“I discovered that accounting really wasn’t for me; I wanted to work with people more. I studied forensic psychology for three years, but then I saw an advertisement for a school for medical and dental assistants and I thought, ‘maybe that’s for me.’ By that time, I was a single mother with three young children. As part of my medical assistant training, I did an internship at Choices specifically to learn about second trimester abortions. And then it happened that I needed a second trimester procedure myself. Shortly afterwards, I applied for a medical assistant job at Choices and was asked to become a counselor because I had worked in every area of the clinic and knew the procedure so well, including through my own personal experience. During my interview, the social worker showed me the exact same photo that had made such an impression on me earlier…I knew this was where I needed to be.”

Another thing that had a big impact on McCoy was the story of 17-year-old Becky Bell, who died from an illegal abortion in 1988 in Indiana, a state that required minors to get parental notification or a judge’s waiver. But word on the street was that the judge was anti-choice and hardly ever said yes. Becky couldn’t bear to “disappoint” her parents, so, it turned out, she got an illegal abortion. A few days later she ended up in a hospital where she died of a massive infection caused by whatever was done to her.

“I have three children, including a 17-year-old daughter,” McCoy said, “and when we first talked about sex, all I could think about was Becky Bell. Young people get the wrong information on the streets or from boyfriends – so I knew what I had to do…even if it meant getting her birth control at a young age. I want my daughter alive and healthy.”

“A parent’s views on sex may differ from her child’s, but I am so happy there is a place like Choices where my children can go if they need to. Teenagers, like Becky Bell, can become desperate to avoid hearing those words, ‘You disappoint me.'”

In fact, McCoy encourages her daughter’s friends to come over to her home to talk, and this has developed into a regular weekly session about what’s going on in their lives, their thoughts and feelings, including about sex, contraception and other reproductive health matters.

Getting Patients to Open Up

“I have to keep asking the patients, ‘how do you feel?'”

“What gets to me most in counseling at the clinic,” McCoy said, “is the lack of self-esteem the women have. I try to get the woman to focus back on herself, her own life, and what she wants.”

This isn’t easy. “Often,” McCoy continued, “a woman will talk about how everyone else feels about the pregnancy but herself. It’s never about them, and I have to keep asking, ‘how do you feel about becoming a mother, what do you want?’ I worry most about the 15-16-17-year olds. They have such low self-esteem, and they think that having a baby would make them more of a person… They also think that a baby would give them the love they often don’t feel from anyone or anywhere else.”

I have to keep asking, ‘how do you feel about becoming a mother?’

“It gets to me sometimes,” McCoy said. “Some women think that having the baby would make their boyfriends stay with them, even though they really don’t want to have a child right now. Their need for someone else’s approval takes over everything else. It comes from an empty space that needs to be filled; until you look in the mirror and like the person you see in it, you’re always going to be seeking approval from someone else. They’ve got to learn to stand up for what’s right for them, and sometimes that means simply saying ‘no’.”

She sees this lack of self-esteem among her daughter’s friends, as well. “The message they get from music videos and TV is it’s okay to run around naked and have sex with multiple partners, that this is the way to get attention, to get love.” McCoy cited one young woman who got her tongue pierced. “I asked her why, and she said she did it because men liked that when women gave them oral sex. Now, I could see it if she said she liked the way it looked or the way it felt,” McCoy continued, “but this was to please a man, not herself!”

“Sex is sometimes not really consensual, with girls just going along with it because their boyfriends want it. This is really just another form of abuse,” she said. “Adult women find themselves in this situation so how could teens be different?”

McCoy said her experience at the clinic as well as with her daughter’s friends shows “there’s a great need for programs in schools and other places where teens can come and talk about these things. When you give them a chance to say what’s on their minds, they really open up, and in a group, they encourage each other to talk. They can see that what they’re thinking and going through is similar to what’s happening to others.”

Until that time comes, Sophia McCoy will be on the frontlines, offering her experience, wisdom and reality-based information to help women make informed decisions that are truly right for them.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care. Her district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquires from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

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