By Melanie Jones
A few days after I had fallen in the bathroom of my home, the painful cramping and vaginal bleeding I experienced still had not gone away. I suspected that my non-hormonal IUD had become dislodged from my fall. My anxiety grew as I realized my body wasn’t going to heal itself. I knew I needed to see a gynecologist, but I didn’t have a relationship with one because I had moved to Chicago from Miami, where my IUD was placed. Using my health insurance company’s online listing of in-network doctors, I called one after the other to see who could see me first.
I ended up at Mercy Medical in Chicago’s South Loop. The gynecologist I saw there confirmed that my IUD was dislodged and should be removed, but she refused to take it out because of “Catholic initiative” restrictions. She was referencing the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. I had been dealing with pain and bleeding, taking Ibuprofen and Tylenol to curb the cramping and wearing pads for several days already. All the while, I continued to go to work because I needed the money. But, at night, I couldn’t sleep through the pain and was exhausted. I just wanted to get the IUD out of my body. Mercy’s doctor explained that because the sole purpose of a non-hormonal IUD was to prevent pregnancy, she wouldn’t help me.
At first, I thought there was a misunderstanding. I couldn’t fathom being denied care for something that seemed to be like basic health care.
I had the non-hormonal IUD, Paragard, because I’d had a mini-stroke when I was younger. IUDs with hormones significantly increase the possibility of stroke.
How Could This Be Happening?
My disbelief choked up in my throat. I struggled with what to say. Not only was I scared that my body would continue to have this object disturbingly lodged inside my uterus, but now this gynecologist was telling me that I was undeserving of basic medical care because I wasn’t ready to be a mother. It felt like I was being told my purpose in life was for breeding and nothing more.
Eventually, I found the words to ask her what I should do to get my IUD removed. She told me to change my provider network through my health insurance company because her hands were tied. She said no doctors practicing under Mercy Medical would remove the IUD for me either. That was it. I was turned out from the office still bleeding and in pain, even worse off than before because I’d just been judged and told I was unworthy of help for using a legal form of birth control. The doctor did not explain any of the associated health risks of living with a dislodged IUD, and under the current Religious Directives, she doesn’t have to. Much later, my new gynecologist, who did remove my I.U.D., explained that a dislodged IUD could cause uterine lacerations and infections.
Ten days of pain and bleeding later and only after I’d spent five hours on the phone with my health insurance provider, switched medical networks, found a new gynecologist, scheduled an appointment and missed time from work, my new doctor removed the IUD. It only took her seconds to do it. The relief was almost instant.
Could There Be a Legal Remedy for Me?
Recognizing the sexist and inexcusable treatment I received at Mercy Medical, I sought legal action and filed a lawsuit with representation from the ACLU. At first, Mercy Medical released a statement saying the doctor should have removed the IUD and that she misunderstood the application of the religious directives. Soon, criticism of their treatment began to build through media stories and interviews I’d done. That’s when Mercy Medical changed its statement.
Mercy Medical’s lawyers met with me and my ACLU representation, but were dismissive of my experience. They made up a narrative and told the investigator on my case that I had refused to get the IUD removed if it wouldn’t be replaced immediately, suggesting I denied the medical care I sought in favor of continued pain and bleeding. It was upsetting. They also gave media outlets this false account. One of their lawyers said to me, “I hope you know (the doctor) is willing to testify in court that she offered to remove the IUD.” I looked her right in the eye and responded, “Then I hope she’s ready to lie under oath.” It wasn’t enough that their overarching use of religion in women’s reproductive rights caused me unnecessary pain and mental stress, but now that they were receiving criticism, they called me a liar in the public forum to discredit my story of what they had done to me.
I and my ACLU lawyers continued to meet with Mercy Medical for several months. The investigator never required the doctor’s presence during the fact-finding process. The lawyers for Mercy Medical conveyed messages for her, filtered through their legal excision. On the other hand, I was questioned directly by the investigator and Mercy’s lawyers as if I’d committed a crime. The investigator is supposed to be impartial but asked me questions that aligned with the made-up account presented by Mercy Medical. She asked, “Were you aware that Mercy doctors have the right to refuse placement of an IUD for religious reasons?” I responded, “This question is irrelevant to my case. I did not ask to have an IUD placed. I asked to have one removed.” The investigator asked me that question repeatedly. Finally, I said, “I’ve answered this question, just because you don’t like the answer doesn’t mean it will change.”
I never asked to have a new IUD placed. My sole request was to have the thing that was hurting me every day removed from my body. I was scared, vulnerable, and desperate for medical help. Mercy Medical showed me no mercy, only judgment, abandonment and then condemnation.
Adding Insult to Injury
Ultimately, Mercy didn’t admit fault; the doctor never admitted wrongdoing; and my ACLU lawyers dropped the case because it felt unwinnable once the investigator sided with Mercy. I was awarded nothing. My lawsuit requested improved training on the religious directives’ restrictions. This was completely ignored. When this started, I felt sorry for the doctor. I believed she wanted to help me, but that she thought she had to deny me care because it aligned with the provider that she worked for and their beliefs, and if she didn’t, she would lose her job. Having her turn her back on me when she saw me in that doctor’s office, afraid and alone, in need, so exposed and desperate to just feel okay, has opened up a hole inside of me. Each time we met with Mercy Medical’s attorneys, the doctor never showing her face, and no utterance of even just an apology for what she and the Catholic health care system had done to me, makes that hole a little deeper. They are sending a message: you are insignificant unless you conform to how we say you can use your body.
I went to a gynecologist for medical help but was denied sovereignty over my own body. When I questioned it, I was called a liar. They have tried to make me disappear, but I hope anyone who reads this sees me and also sees hundreds of women across the U.S. who are told they are incapable of having dominion over their own bodies. What happened to me is small compared to the women who are unnecessarily put in life-threatening situations by the people they trusted to help them. It occurs more than most realize. We cannot sit idly by as this continues to happen. We cannot allow religious institutions to dictate reproductive care and see through women’s rights. This is not moral health care, it is the amoral failing of health care.