Birth control and the Bible belt: The Atlantic says they're mutually exclusive

You’ve got to hand this to The Atlantic; at least they are trying to do interesting religion stories, which is a lot more than I can say about certain other national magazines. And every so often, I think: They get it, as there’s a story that shows unusual insight.

More often than not, though, there’s a lot of insight all right, but it only involves one side of the issue. Such is their June 14 offering: “Can the IUD Revolution Come to the Bible Belt?” Being that copper IUDs were invented in the 1960s, this headline is telling us that the Bible Belt is a good half century behind the times.

There’s very little religion mentioned in the story. But, the main photo for the piece shows two hands holding an open book.

On one page is a T-shaped IUD. On the other is a similarly shaped wooden cross. That's subtle. Reading further:

AMARILLO, Texas -- In the dimly lit, one-room portable building, Abril Vazquez held up a beige, bulbous model of a human tricep. The high-schoolers had pushed their desks into a circle. Vazquez invited them to pass it around. When they pressed down into the fake flesh, they could feel the rigid shape of a rod about the size of a toothpick.
“What does that do again?” a boy asked. The kids ranged in age from 14 to 16, and some seemed like their minds were in the process of being blown.
“It's birth control,” said Vazquez, who works at a reproductive clinic in town. “It releases hormones into her body in small doses and in even amounts.”
“How does it get in there, Miss?” another boy said.
“It's a small incision,” Vazquez said. “They slip it under the skin, and then they bandage you up. It might be bruised for a while.”
Vazquez is only 25, but she has the stage presence of a seasoned college professor, with a socratic tone and a business-casual sweater. In a neighboring school district, or even a nearby school, the goal of sex ed might be to instill a fear of premarital sex. Here, though, her brass-tacks lecture is about IUDs and implants -- devices that would allow the teens to put off having kids until they’re much older.

After explaining that Vazquez’s audience is a class of misbehaving students, there is more:

Most students in Amarillo don’t get to hear from Vazquez about these long-acting, reversible contraceptives.
For sex education, public schools in this conservative town rely on an abstinence-oriented program called “Worth the Wait.” Vazquez says most high-school principals will not allow her and other workers from her clinic, Haven Health, to come present to the kids about family planning.

It then explains that she had two kids as a teenager.

Vazquez’s teenage struggle is one that awaits many kids in Amarillo. The surrounding county has a teen birth rate nearly four times the national average. Out of 1,000 Amarillo teenagers, 90 will give birth before the age of 19.

Reversible contraceptives are the obvious answer for so many kids, the article continues, but because of the conservative nature of the city’s inhabitants (hint, hint), she can’t get access into public schools to talk about birth control. Why, because this is Texas, where leaders of the majority of school districts answer to citizens who believe abstinence is the best form of birth control.

It’s true the author allows someone from the local school district to explain why they haven’t given Vazquez access to other schools, so technically, the article is balanced. But in another way, it’s not. Why?

Because one side gets to have a winsome single mom with tons of good quotes while the other side gets unsympathetic mechanical responses from the usual suspects. Yes, the school district representative made a bad call in not at least meeting personally with the reporter. But could there have been more effort to at least understand the other side’s position?

One set of statistics I found about Amarillo shows the population is overwhelmingly evangelical Protestant.  A lot fewer are Roman Catholics, whose church doctrines oppose unnatural forms of birth control. But evangelicals have traditionally favored birth control and even though some are having second thoughts about it, it’s not forbidden by any means. Is the problem really the religious folks?

I asked a journalist friend of mine who’s worked in Amarillo for years about the story, and he felt it was accurate about the culture in northwest Texas. I would have liked to have heard more about that culture through some other lenses, such as a visit to a church or a Worth the Wait presentation. It felt that the writer only had time for a quick drop-in at one of Vazquez’s presentations and that she filled in the rest by phone.

Had she been able to be there longer, maybe we could have learned if the bogeyman is the Bible Belt locale or is it a culture that doesn’t see unplanned pregnancy as a problem? There are plenty of cultures around the country that are not in the Bible Belt and for which out-of-wedlock babies are quite common. As one of the reader comments noted, the Bronx is awash with info on birth control but its teen pregnancy rates are sky-high as well. So, do pregnancy rates have more to do with welfare rolls and less with religion?

High-plains Texas feels like the ultimate in fly-over country to a magazine based on the East Coast, so it's little wonder we have these drop-in visits to the backward natives.

The Atlantic has been having a fair amount of articles on Texas recently, it's a wonder they've not established a bureau there. Other than lots of handwringing about access to abortions there, is it possible to run some pieces that show Bible Belt people who lead normal lives? Those of us who've lived in Texas know they exist. You just have to want to find them and then be willing to listen to what they have to say.

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