Not long ago, when I was doing research in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee for my new book on young Pentecostal serpent handlers, some of us -- by which I mean people involved in local churches and local life -- grew to despise what I call journalistic carpetbaggers.
Those are the folks from the big city who show up in Fly-Over Land to get at the real truth about those denizens of America’s hinterlands they believe no other journalist has uncovered. They wouldn’t dream of leaving their enclaves inside the Beltway or –- in this case the Outer Perimeter of Atlanta -- to actually live among the unwashed, but they do like jetting in every so often to report on the Truth That Is Out There Among The Simple People.
You can probably guess where I’m going with CNN’s latest: “Forget Abortion: What women in Appalachian Kentucky really want.”
I’ll tell you up front what that is: They want birth control and lots of it. Oh, and there's no need to talk to Kentucky women who oppose abortion. They don't exist.
The story begins here:
Pikeville, Kentucky (CNN) Perhaps it was the abstinence pledge she felt forced to sign or the promise ring she was told to slip on her finger. But from the moment Cheryl became sexually active, she felt dirty.
Then, three boys raped her, reducing her self-image to mud.
She didn't dare tell anyone or seek help. Growing up in rural eastern Kentucky, she'd been raised by drug addicts who'd lost the family home and lived in a place, she says, where there was "nothing left to do but do each other."
I’ll agree that rural eastern Kentucky (I also biked through the area -– places like Elkhorn City, Pippa Passes and Hazard -- many years ago during a trip from Washington DC to Lexington, Ky.), is often closer to being Meth Alley rather than a garden spot. That region of the country appears atop all the bad lists: joblessness, poverty, absenteeism, life expectancy and female smoking during pregnancy.
Pikeville, by the way, is to the north of Middlesboro, a town in the far southeastern corner of the state where I spent lots of time at a famous snake-handling church and interviewed women as well as men.
Shame kept Cheryl, who wants to be identified only by a pseudonym, from even stepping foot into her hometown's health department. A year of untreated chlamydia stole her fertility.
"I wish I hadn't been so scared," says Cheryl, now 20 and a University of Pikeville student who hopes to be an attorney someday. "I will never be able to have a family. I wish the way I'd learned about my own body and sex in general had been different."
Here, where the Bible Belt cinches tight around Central Appalachia and small-town living means everyone knows your business, matters of sexuality and reproductive health are traditionally talked about in whispers -- if they're talked about at all.
Already, I think I know where this story is going.
Gov. Matt Bevin, they say, is hell-bent on outlawing abortion. Under him, state officials are threatening to close Kentucky's only abortion clinic. And though a pre-abortion ultrasound requirement was recently struck down, Bevin signed into law a ban on abortions after 20 weeks. Meantime, the Trump administration has rolled back Obamacare's contraceptive coverage requirement and proposed a budget that would cut programs to prevent teen pregnancy -- while sinking millions more into abstinence-only education.
In the face of all of this, there are women in eastern Kentucky rising up to do what others won't do for them. Through activism and art, radio shows and bootleg sex ed classes, they are taking a stand for their communities and families, and for every young Cheryl out there.
What follows are profiles of several women fighting to bring more information about birth control –- and abortion -– into them hills.
They’re all interesting, engaging women who want the high incidence of teen pregnancies in the area to go down. They have gripping stories. But I didn’t find in there anything resembling the many women I met in Kentucky churches or through Facebook.
Remember Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk –- an Apostolic Church member -- who got into hot water for refusing to sign gay marriage licenses? Although she lives well to the north of where this story is based, she’s probably eastern Kentucky’s most famous female. I see no one in this story who looks or sounds like her. Instead:
This is an area where strong women have been slow to get pap smears and mammograms or tend to their general health. It's also a state where 76 out of 120 counties don't have an OB-GYN, according to a 2014 report by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
The fact these counties don’t have gynecologists may not be due to the reluctance of the state to employ them but to the reluctance on the part of the OB-GYNs themselves to actually work there. Other rural states, even blue ones such as New Mexico and eastern Colorado, have similar struggles in getting medical professionals to live in the sticks.
Plus, how many of you reading this have driven (or biked) through eastern Kentucky? There are a lot of roads out there that are in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been on a few. This is J.D. Vance country. Large towns, not to mention cities, are few and far between. In fact, one of the only institutions in those rural areas are those churches that CNN looks down on.
One of the big holes in this story is how the birth control folks could be working with local churches but they’re not. Whose fault is that? Lots of conservative Protestant churches oppose abortion, but not necessarily birth control. Did CNN bother to seek out these folks?
Instead, what you have is a walking advertisement for birth control clinics. The story is rife with religion “ghosts;” which are religious elements floating about the topic that get ignored by the reporter. Eastern Kentucky women attend church a lot. Why aren’t any of them interviewed?
I think we all know the answer. Their presence would damage the narrative of the resourceful pro-choice Kentucky women fighting the local ignorance, patriarchy, Christian fundamentalism, you-name-it.
But is that narrative all of the truth? It doesn’t reflect the eastern Kentucky I know and the women who may have had a lot of kids, not because they didn’t know what a condom or a birth control pill was, but because they didn’t care to take those precautions nor abort their children.
This story didn’t bother to record their feelings.
I’m not arguing that family planning may be a little-known science in those hills and hollers. Still, CNN is very worried that Kentucky may lose its one abortion clinic in Louisville according to this September story, so I think I smell a pattern here. Every few months, CNN is going to sound the alarm about this situation.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if CNN actually talked with a few female abortion opponents in eastern Kentucky to get a feel for why they don’t want such clinics in their neighborhood? Would it be that much of a burden to seek those women out? It should be fairly easy to find some, since -- check out this 2014 Pew Research Center poll -- 57 percent of people in Kentucky affirmed that abortion should be illegal in "all/most cases."
Many of those women may not want to talk, feeling that they don’t want to be clobbered for their beliefs. But if CNN’s Atlanta-based staffers would actually hang out in the churches these women frequent, they might get some decent quotes and produce a story that reflects all of eastern Kentucky's women, not just those that a few folks dropping in from Atlanta chose to quote.
Main photo from Kentucky Health News.