The Sexist

Yes, We Have No Birth Control

Shelf Life: Planning your marital act the Divine way.

I am the only customer inside Chantilly's Divine Mercy Care Pharmacy on Halloween morning, and I'm not buying. A week earlier, the pro-life outfit was blessed by a bishop, sprinkled with holy water, and courted by the national press in preparation for its Oct. 21 grand opening. Right now, it's hard up for any man off the street.

Robert Semler, pharmacist and manager, sits behind a partition separating his pharmacy from the rest of the small shop. Up front, the pharmacy's face is Pam Semler's, a nurse and pharmacist's wife whose soft features are framed by a thick blond fringe and a pair of round glasses. She is the pharmacy's sole staff member and, as a condition of employment, must "accept the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church." Divine Mercy Care executive director Bob Laird explains later, over the phone, that means "treating every person who comes in as if they are Christ sitting across from you." It also means that all employees must be pro-life.

As Pam bids me good morning, I break it to her that I'm not a customer. Pam hedges my first question—"business has been fine"—before deferring all other inquiries to a glossy DMC Pharmacy brochure, which provides corporate contact info along with a brief biography of Robert Semler, who does not emerge during my visit. Semler is a "long standing member of Pharmacists for Life International" whose "pro-life beliefs were solidified after hearing Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life stating for Christ, 'Either you are with Me or against Me,'" the brochure reads.

I sense that Pam already knows which side of the divide I'm on as she gives me the OK to peruse the products that sit in her immaculate shop. She shuffles quietly behind me as Semler announces housekeeping tasks and indulges Pam's small talk.

"Metamucil comes in a pink lemonade flavor now," says Pam. "Imagine that."

"No, I can't," her husband replies from behind the partition.

"Sounds pretty unappetizing."


At an upcoming Divine Mercy Care fundraising gala, "Platinum Sponsors" who donate more than $10,000 may elect to sit at a table with Semler and his spouse. Fundraising is a significant component of the income of the DMC, which also administers a pro-life OB-GYN clinic, Fairfax's Tepeyac Family Center.

Laird says the low foot traffic is to be expected of any startup. "We're expecting the pharmacy to start slow, but we believe it will be a financial success," he says. "If we didn't expect it to be a success, we wouldn't have done it."

I spend my own audience with the Semlers in silence as I take stock of the Catholic-prepped shelves, carefully arranged with medical accoutrements (no candy, batteries, or magazines here). Many are targeted toward women—Dr. Scholl's For Her Comfort Insoles, Midol Teen Formula, Vagisil Talc-Free Deodorant Powder. A small waiting area is stocked with two white wicker chairs and a pile of Taste of Home magazines, along with a basket of blank index cards "for recipes." The female-oriented atmosphere glosses over one glaring omission: The pharmacy will not stock birth control pills or emergency contraception.

Instead, Divine Mercy Care provides its own brand of medical choice. Atop a stack of leaflets about herbal supplements sits a fact-sheet for the Doctor's Natural Therapy brand of Natural Hormone Balancing Creams. The creams, made of "Natural USP Progesterone from wild yam," offer up a natural alternative to the therapeutic effects of oral contraception and hormone replacement therapy. "Have you experienced any of these symptoms?" the fact sheet asks before listing 21 problems the ointment resolves: PMS, Hot Flashes, Irregular Menstruation, Cramping, Mood Swings, Hormone-Related Headaches, Fatigue, Irritability, Anxiety, Weight Gain, Water Retention, Confusion, Breast Tenderness, Miscarriages, Infertility, Decreased Libido, Dryness, Bone Loss, Hair Loss, Insomnia, Premature Aging.

I pause briefly at "Confusion" and wonder how the wild yam came to hold the key to curing all symptoms that ail my gender.

But Divine Mercy Care stocks a stronger alternative to birth control: information. Near the exit sits a stack of "Art of Natural Family Planning" student guides distributed by pro-life group Couple to Couple League International. I leaf through a copy as I sit on a wicker chair, waiting for another customer to arrive to provide sound bites explaining the pro-life pharmacy phenomenon. "How does contraception availability compromise your trust in a pharmacist?" I want to ask. "What role does holy water play in your choice of pharmacy?"

But the book provides more insight into the space where anti-contraceptive morality meets reality: The tutorial describes, in minute detail, the "natural" processes by which couples may have sex while avoiding pregnancy-and still adhering to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Natural Family Planning involves eschewing condoms, oral contraceptives, and the withdrawal method in favor of close watch of the woman's fertility cycle, achieved by monitoring her shifts in temperature and cataloging monthly changes to her vagina, from mucus elasticity to cervix hardness. Laird says that natural family planning helps couples continue "the marital act," "something that takes place between a man and a woman vaginally, naturally." A typical requirement for the "marital act" reads like the positioning of troops for battle: "Three normal post-peak temperatures in a rising pattern above the LTL AND the third temperature at or above the HTL OR the cervix closed and hard for three days."

The guide's moral justification for this process is more difficult to parse, with reasoning ranging from "providence" to "aesthetics." "It is God who in His providence has allowed us to learn in the late 20th century about woman's alternating fertility and infertility-and about Natural Family Planning-at the same time that other medical advances greatly increased the population survival rate," Couple to Couple explains before detailing a more compelling argument-the sex is better, too. "Contraceptive condoms (male or female), sponges, diaphragms and foams have definite problems in the area of 'aesthetics'-many couples find them downright unpleasant, and they interfere with spontaneity."

I weigh the difference between wild yam extract and estrogen, barrier methods and calculated infertile sex, "sex for pleasure" and "family planning," and wish I could find a customer to help explain her preferences. I consider the fact that on Halloween, even the staunchest pro-life customer might be moved to skip across the street to the CVS, where Kit Kats are stocked alongside condoms. Before I leave, I wonder if I can justify expensing the $24.95 book for further study. Instead, I settle on a companion piece, the "Art of Natural Family Planning Chart Booklet" ($2). I approach Pam for the sale.

"Are you going to use it?" she asks, hesitating to go back behind the counter to ring up my purchase.
Of course I'm not going to use it, I think. I'm going to skim over it, extract its detail, and use it to color my essay on your place of business.

"They're paired with the books, and we only have a limited number," Pam explains, still not making the move behind the counter. Her husband sits silent behind the partition. I eye the large stack of charts by the door, which has not opened since my arrival. "So you're not going to sell it to me?"

Pam doesn't answer me, just sighs, moves behind the counter, and punches in the data. I stand in silence for several minutes as Pam moves through the arduous sale; the item's ID number, 123-456, doesn't register correctly in the pharmacy's system. Pam follows a dozen curt orders from her husband before dialing a number on the telephone for outside help. I offer to pay for the booklet without a receipt.

At last I leave with booklet in hand. Within it are hundreds of tidy checkable boxes for tracking one's "coitus record" and "mucus sensations."

Photo by Gnarles Monkey.

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  • Jane

    It's actually sad- you don't even seem interested in your own body- OCP can can cause breast cancer, loss of libido and weight gain...NFP is effective
    and free- no big pharm companies, no pill to remember...

    And the manner in which you describe the couple- I read as folks married a long time. That's normal, they work together, what did you want a pow wow over every decision...come on. I know you'd think a restaurant with a tatooed bartender hitting on young women would be more liberating.

    This mentality is so boring and old.

  • Amanda Hess

    Thanks for commenting, Jane. I think it's interesting that you find my experience at the pharmacy to be "boring and old." One thing that actually surprised me about the natural family planning information I found there was how open it was about a woman's body and how new that seemed to me for the Catholic Church. So in that way, the method has an aspect of newness and even progressivism.

    I'm not against Natural Family Planning---I don't care at what times of the month people have sex with each other---I just think it is strange to ban condoms and contraceptives and replace them with thermometers and vigilant mucus inspection. It's a newly constructed way for the Catholic church to achieve the same ends---having sex for pleasure without having babies---and I just don't see much of a difference between the methods.

    I also have to disagree with you about oral contraceptives (which I do not take). They are as effective as Family Planning, and require a lot less to remember than Natural Family Planning. I'm not suggesting women use oral contraception, but I'll fight for their right to be prescribed it. The "woman's health" argument (many of them ill-informed) seems like a strange justification to me---I'm not sure what the minor health effects of oral contraception on women has to do with the Bible, or why it's become a Catholic point of argument. If the Catholic Church really cared about the health of women, it would be spearheading a campaign against fast food and cigarettes, not oral contraception. The idea that women can't decide what drugs are best for their own bodies has always seemed condescending to me. Also condescending is the assertion that women shouldn't be allowed to gain a couple pounds to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

    Despite what you might have inferred, I would not prefer to receive my prescription drugs from a restaurant.

  • Lilith

    Great article, Amanda! Long live birth control. Luckily, there aren't many of these nutty places. The only people that will use this pharmacy are the people that share their Caucescu ideals. All of us evil satanists will go to the rest of the pharmacies that actually care about women's choices. Birth control is what kept my endometriosis in check and me out of pain in check for years until I could have children when I could afford to. Then, the horrid terrible anti unchecked breeder that I am, had a hysterectomy. Try as they may, religion will never be able to force it's wackoness on us.

  • Amanda Hess

    Thanks, Lilith. If you know of any other pharmacies you'd like me to profile---pro-choice, pro-life, with strange procedures for dispensing condoms, whatever---I'd love to hear about them.

  • Lilly

    Wow- I had no idea that these places existed outside of that weird town run by the Domino's Pizza guy. I've bookmarked your site, thank you for posting this Amanda. I'm totally disgusted that a minority of religious nutters can dictate whether or not I can fill a prescription. That's obscene - and as you showed with your Viagra double-use standard - it would not be the case if it were medication needed by a man.

    The real tragedy is what do women and girls do in small towns or areas where transportation is limited and their local pharmacy prefers to proselytize through pharmaceuticals?

    I just don't understand the mind set of: "your with us or against us." Or why anyone thinks it is not morally objectionable to substitute their personal beliefs for a medically prescribed treatment?

  • Amanda Hess

    Thanks, Lilly. I hope to venture out to more places in the 'burbs soon.

  • Michael Barnett

    Can the non-religious nutters in the room tell me when human life does begin from a scientific perspective?


  • Amanda Hess

    This is clearly a complicated question, but I think most non-religious nutters in the room would agree that human life does not begin before the processes that contraception stops. The literature I've read on Natural Family Planning frames it as an alternative to the following "unnatural" methods. I've listed them and explained why they're not a threat to human life.

    - Withdrawl. Non-religious nutters do not believe that human life begins when a man ejaculates into space.

    - Condom. Non-religious nutters do not believe that human life begins when a man ejaculates into a latex casing.

    - Oral contraception. Non-religious nutters do not believe that human life begins when a man ejaculates into a woman and does not fertilize an egg, because that woman is not ovulating.

    - Emergency contraception. Non-religious nutters do not believe that human life begins when a man ejaculates into a woman and does not fertilize an egg, because the pill prevents the sperm from meeting an egg, or prevents the egg from attaching to the uterus.

  • K

    I am a Christian I believe in God, and believe it or not, I do go to church every Sunday. But me and my husband use birth control. We cannot afford to have a child at the moment and I do not see how different it is from natural family planning. It is our decision to use birth control. We are still planning to have children, which ulitimately is what God wants of us--to bear children. I don't see why it matter to anybody WHEN we have children, though. If we want to wait, we want to wait and we will wait. How we prevent children in the mean time was a choice we made together and believe is the right thing to do to provide for our children properly.

  • K

    And to Jane, although evidence suggests there may be links between breast cancer and oral contraceptives, it can reduce the risk of ovarian and endometrial cancer.
    Check out It states not only benefits of oral contraceptives and it also shows the risks, too.