I Was One Of Those Women Who Couldn't Afford Birth Control — & I Got Pregnant

Photographed By Megan Madden.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist, abortion storyteller, and board member at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Ahead, she shares an open letter she's written to Rep. Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dear Rep. Tom Price,

Congratulations on your recent selection by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as his secretary of health and human services. It’s a huge responsibility to oversee a department with a budget of over $1 trillion. As a former orthopedic surgeon, I know you’ve spent much of your life practicing medicine; however, I’m worried about your record of putting your ideology before the needs of your patients. As a Black woman, I am distraught that your opposition to the Affordable Care Act will leave many of my sisters without basic health care.

But what’s deeply troubling to me are your comments on abortion and birth control, and your misunderstanding of why access is so crucial. With a president-elect who has vowed to “punish” those who have abortions, and a vice president-elect who, as governor of Indiana, stood by as two women of color were prosecuted for miscarriages, I would hope that you, as a medical provider, would ensure that the government does no harm and guarantees access to health care for all of its people. Yet, you have consistently voted to deny access to abortion care, even when against medical advice. And in 2012, you doubted the very existence of people who have a difficult time affording birth control. "Bring me one woman who has been left behind," you told a ThinkProgress reporter at the time. "Bring me one. There’s not one."

Well, Rep. Price, I am one of those women.

When I was 19 years old, I struggled to afford birth control and became pregnant because of it. At the time, I was working a retail job earning just above minimum wage while I attended college. Though I was still living at home, my parents taught me about personal responsibility, and I paid for most things on my own — gas in my car, meals, and my birth control co-pays. This was before the Affordable Care Act made birth control available without a co-pay. That meant I had to spend $120 every three months for generic levonorgestrel, better known as the brand name, Seasonale. At one point, I didn’t have the money to pick up another pack — the cost would have been most of my paycheck. So, I thought I’d wait until the next pay period and use the little money I had to get to work.

When I was 19 years old, I struggled to afford birth control and became pregnant because of it.

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At the time, I didn’t realize that I could get pregnant if I missed a week or two of pills. In my high school sex-ed classes, the teacher preached about his kids and their purity vows and showed us slides of STDs, rather than giving us helpful information about sex and family planning. Like most teens, I turned to my friends to fill in the gaps, asking them the questions that I didn’t feel comfortable asking my parents, or looking for answers I didn’t get in class. One of the myths my friends told me was that if I’d been on birth control for a long time, it would build up in my system and I couldn’t get pregnant (definitely false, as I later learned). And, like many teens, I didn’t know how to negotiate consent or condom use in my relationship, which later turned abusive. Eventually, I became pregnant.

I knew I wasn’t ready to become a parent. So I made an appointment at the abortion clinic, and maxed out my first credit card, which had a $500 limit that was supposed to only be used in emergencies. This was an emergency. I was relieved, and to this day, the decision to have an abortion is still one of the best I have ever made.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images.
Rep. Tom Price, President-elect Trump's pick to serve as secretary of health and human services, has a long record of opposing abortion and access to contraception.
Like many Americans, access to abortion and birth control were central in my ability to finish my education, maintain my job (which didn’t have pregnancy leave for part-time employees like me), and become the person I am today. And, like many Americans, I had a hard time paying for it before the Affordable Care Act. In fact, the contraception coverage mandate meant that birth control usage increased, particularly for long-acting reversible contraception. Those options, some of the most effective and expensive forms of birth control, can cost more than $1,000. We literally cannot afford to go back to that time.

We use birth control for so many reasons. Planning our families is a crucial reason, and for Black women, controlling our cycles can be particularly important. Research has shown that we are significantly more likely to experience symptoms related to uterine fibroids, which can make periods unbearable. Contraception serves as relief from excruciating pain until we can afford surgery if our doctors recommend it. It’s true that Black women have abortions at a rate higher than other racial groups, and it’s because we lack consistent access to birth control and have higher maternal mortality rates. In some cases, abortion is the safest option for our lives. Black women know what’s best for our bodies. Trust us, Rep. Price.
Photo: Courtesy of Renee Bracey Sherman.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive justice activist.
You’ve spent your career trying to make abortion illegal — everything from 20-week bans based on bunk medical advice to voting for legislation that bans abortion based on racist and sexist reasons. You’re even a member of a professional medical group that claims an abortion causes breast cancer, though there’s no medical evidence supporting it; and that advocates for personhood at conception, rather than the medically accurate implantation. You’re putting ideology before medical science, and that’s incredibly alarming if you’re going to be the one leading this country’s healthcare policy one day.

At the core of this is a deep level of hypocrisy. You believe that the Affordable Care Act is government intrusion on health care, yet religiously vote to insert the government in between people seeking abortions and their providers. So, which is it? Do you want the government guiding the speculum, or a doctor?

I’m a hopeless optimist. So I’m reaching out to you in hopes that you’ll realize you hold the fate of so many in your hands. You’ve been nominated for an important role, and it’s imperative that you, as your new boss President-elect Trump has promised, represent all Americans, which includes the 7 in 10 who believe abortion should remain legal and accessible.

I’m happy to chat more if you’re open to listening. This won’t be the last time you hear from me and the advocates who work tirelessly to make sure access to reproductive health care, including abortion, is protected and expanded. Having the ability to decide if, when, and how to become a parent is crucial to our ability to fully participate in society. We hope you’ll soon realize that.

Together we can truly make America, and abortion access, great again.