An interview with Carmen Berkley, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s managing director of organizing and electoral Campaigns.
Health care has a long history of discrimination and inequality. Who is able to receive quality health care, who has patient and privacy rights, and whose pain is taken seriously all depended on and, to some extent, still depends on who you are.
The Trump-Pence administration has pushed policy after policy to attack our health, rights, and freedoms. Now, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a proposed rule that would expand refusals of health care on the basis of religious, moral, or other personal reasons. That means any health care worker can deny health services and information to people for virtually any reason. For people without options, this could mean going without care or deciding not to seek care out of fear of discrimination.
Ryane Ridenour sat down with Carmen Berkley to talk about her negative experiences of getting health care before this license to discriminate rule was proposed, and how the new rule would increase the chances of this happening to others.
How has your experience been trying to get health care generally — especially as a Black woman?
It’s always been a challenge. Not overt bias, but it’s always implicit. Health care professionals often seem to have little information about our specific needs unless they are fellow Black people. I heavily rely on my aunt, who is a physician's assistant, and my sister, who is a health therapist, to give me advice. I always have to supplement my care to ensure I have the best information. Unfortunately, most women don’t have that (nor should they have to), and it’s why we see such huge health disparities for women of color, people in rural communities, and people with low-incomes.
You’ve mentioned being denied health care in the past. Are you comfortable sharing? How did it make you feel?
Awful! Demoralized. I have always had health insurance, and great health insurance through my employer. However, I had an ectopic pregnancy* a few years back and the religious hospital in D.C. I went to made me feel uncomfortable. They asked me questions about trying to take the pregnancy to term (which is dangerous), and they were unwavering about their policies to pick up my own medication from the pharmacy to terminate the pregnancy. I was already upset and hurt, and they didn’t make it better.
*Editor’s note: An ectopic pregnancy is when a pregnancy grows outside of your uterus, usually in your fallopian tube. Ectopic pregnancies are rare but serious, and very dangerous if left untreated. Fallopian tubes can break if they’re stretched too much by the growing pregnancy, which can lead to internal bleeding, infection, or — in some cases — even death.
Afterwards, when I asked for an IUD, they refused and said I should go to another hospital in D.C. because [they considered it] a form of abortion.* I literally couldn’t believe my ears. Then the nurse whispered that it was a Christian hospital, and they do not provide those services. Now, I am a person of faith. I go to Church, I am a Christian, I pray daily. I never considered that going to a faith-based hospital in my neighborhood would impact my health care.
*Fact check: Scientists agree that IUDs are a method of birth control and do not end a pregnancy. An IUD is a tiny device that’s placed in the uterus to prevent pregnancy. It’s safe, long-term, reversible, and one of the most effective birth control methods available.
Wow, so your provider refused to treat you, knowing it was life-threatening? When they denied you care, what did the conversation sound like?
It sounded like they were telling me that even though the IUD could prevent future ectopic pregnancies and trauma for my husband and me, they’d rather refuse my request because of their religious beliefs. I only went to that hospital because it was closest to my house and I was in an emergency. If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone there. Also, I am a Christian woman! So to be denied health care by fellow people of faith was hard to swallow.
Absolutely. I also want to highlight that women of color, and especially Black women, have more restricted access to health care because hospitals in their neighborhoods are more likely to be religiously affiliated. For instance, just across the border in Maryland, three-quarters of the births in Catholic hospitals are to women of color. Looking back, what did you wish this doctor knew?
That I was already afraid and quite frankly confused. I only knew my options because my husband and I did research. I felt like they assumed things about my husband and I, and it really impacted me during an already sad and painful experience.
I’m sorry you went through that. Have you since found competent health providers who made you feel like they respected you and your health needs?
Yes. I go to all women of color doctors now — from my primary care provider to my OBGYN. It’s so important that I have providers that get me and my health concerns, and it’s unfortunate that I can’t rely on [some] hospitals that share my faith.
What advice would you give to someone who has been denied health care because of who they are, or because they’re seeking health services that someone might disapprove of?
Don’t take no for an answer. Ever. Get a second opinion and bring an advocate! You need another person to be on your side! It’s also a good time to reevaluate your providers. Do they share your values, will they support you and not judge you, and [will they] provide you with quality care? If not, and if possible, try to find another provider who will support your health care needs and wants — regardless of their personal views — because it’s your life.
Has this experience changed your approach to the way in which you seek reproductive health care?
One hundred percent — my health is my right and, as a Black woman, seeking other women of color who are able to support my family and me is paramount to my long-term health.
What would you recommend for people wanting to get involved in the fight against the Trump-Pence administration’s extreme attacks on our health, our rights, and our communities?
Join the fight by becoming a Planned Parenthood Defender. You’d get the latest info on how to resist these attacks.