Find out what's happening in the world as it unfolds. Stacie Sexton oversees a project determined to bring comprehensive birth-control access to southeastern Kentucky. Story highlights A court battle about Kentucky's only abortion clinic is in progress Women in Central Appalachia, hours away from the clinic, worry about other matters They are stepping up to fight for basics, like birth control and sex ed access 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.
A year of untreated chlamydia stole her fertility. I wish the way I'd learned about my own body and sex in general had been different. But pull back the kudzu, and you'll hear voices crying out for change, even as the political winds howl against them. Arwen Donahue, an artist and writer, is working on a graphic novel about choices, reproduction and motherhood because she wants to give voice to rural women who are often isolated. 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. As deep as the 'hollers' Near a stone bridge that crosses the North Fork of the Kentucky River in the quaint town of Whitesburg, a group gathers in a space usually reserved for youth programs and punk rock shows.
They are here to embark on a bold mission, one that is so new, they ask me to leave before they get to work. Last clinic standing The dozen or so who stream in are from Whitesburg and nearby towns, the big city of Lexington and even the nation's capital. To launch a comprehensive birth-control access campaign in southeastern Kentucky, where teen birth rates outpace the national average.
In walks a woman who remembers classmates who got pregnant before they reached high school. Here comes another who likes to say it's easier to get pain pills in these parts than some forms of birth control. A third works on the front lines to ensure abortion access. Abortion has put Kentucky in the national spotlight.
If its last abortion clinic , based in Louisville, closes, the Bluegrass State would be the first in the nation to effectively ban the procedure since it was legalized in But here in this easternmost part of the state, hundreds of miles from Louisville, a court battle over the clinic's fate is hardly top of mind. Many people I meet while traversing the region aren't even aware this fight is happening.
Medical professionals can count on one hand the times they've been asked about abortions. Women who've had abortions rarely, if ever, mention it. For many, the clinic might as well be in Las Vegas. If you don't have the means to get to Louisville -- let alone pay for the procedure, lodging and child care -- what difference does it make if there's no abortion clinic in the state?
What can make a difference in tackling unplanned and unwanted pregnancies are more conversations about -- and more access to -- birth control, reproductive health care and sex ed. But the challenges in opening up these discussions run as deep as the "hollers," or valleys, that cut through these green hills. But the reality bursts with color -- and people who defy expectations.
Tattooed on Stacie Sexton's left shoulder are the longitude and latitude of Whitesburg, where she was born and raised until she moved to nearby Hazard as a tween. She lives in Lexington now but never forgets where she's from. She recalls the abstinence-only education she got in grade school and how two of the seven girls in her class got pregnant before the end of eighth grade.
One miscarried; the other married. She'd just turned 20 when a nurse at the health department confirmed that she was pregnant and insisted that she make a prenatal care appointment. With the start of college around the bend, she had other plans: She traveled more than miles to Knoxville, Tennessee, for an abortion. When someone from the health department called because she'd missed her appointment, Sexton was honest about what she'd done.
A ticking clock on a complex pregnancy Today, at 32, she's a force for change. She recently organized the first "Abortion Monologues" in Lexington, providing a stage for women and men to share their stories while trying to increase empathy and erase stigma. But it's her full-time job at the Kentucky Health Justice Network that brings her back to Whitesburg this evening to steer the group committed to promoting birth control access.
With funding from the Educational Foundation of America, All Access EKY aims to increase access to and demand for birth control, including long-acting reversible options like IUDs and implants -- the sorts of contraceptives that can be hard to come by here. We're "still having to fight all these negative stereotypes of being barefoot and pregnant," Sexton says. This is according to the latest figures culled by the Guttmacher Institute , a leading research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health.
All Access EKY wants to shape a new reality through coalition building, education, legislation and storytelling.
A hardscrabble history Signs pointing to churches dot the roadways. So do alerts for blasting zones and fallen rock, where the long-dying coal industry gasps for breath. To understand how women have experienced this region, it helps to know a bit about the hardscrabble history of where they're from. The area has long been defined by coal. But the truth is, since automation took hold after World War II, mining has been on its way out. The "boom and bust" business that displaced millions of people has been dying for decades, says Dee Davis, founder and president of Whitesburg's Center for Rural Strategies , who has lived in and studied this area for most of his 66 years.
Davis talks about the lush hills that sustain him, the crows that chase away hawks in "a big movie in the sky," the memories of the grandmother with bodybuilder arms who taught him to skip rocks across the creek bed. Nestled in the hills of Central Appalachia, Kentuckians are fighting for their communities. The women I meet speak about their dozens of cousins, the generations that root them here, the gardening, fiddling and quilting that courses through their "mountain woman" veins.
One stands on her office porch; behind her is a painting of a quilt design made by her grandmother, who died in February at age Before she was buried, the family slipped something into her pocket: This is an area where strong women have been slow to get pap smears and mammograms or tend to their general health.
Jessica Branham says, the situation has started to change. So beyond gynecological exams, she's talking to them about advances in birth control.
Many women here are still haunted by "the ghost of the Dalkon Shield," she says, the flawed and dangerous intrauterine device that went on the market in the s.
But even if she persuades them to trust what's new, she can't always deliver. If an IUD is approved by insurance, it's often on a "buy and bill" basis, meaning the patient must pay for it up-front, she says. This means that for a woman experiencing heavy bleeding, it can be easier to get a hysterectomy, which is covered by insurance, than it is to manage the problem with a simple form of birth control, she says.
Bridging the disconnect Sexton, of All Access EKY, says women of all ages should know that their contraceptive options extend beyond abstinence, the pill and condoms -- and that what works for one person may not work for another. But just getting them to walk into a health department can be a challenge when the person behind the counter or in the exam room might be a neighbor or fellow church member. If a woman gets through the door, she should be informed enough to know what options to ask for -- and hope the one she wants is available, says Sexton.
Of the clinics in those counties, only a third offer the full range of contraceptive methods, according to Power to Decide , a national nonprofit working to prevent unplanned pregnancies.
Appalshop, a cultural and media hub in Whitesburg, has partnered with All Access EKY to produce material that will speak to people in Central Appalachia. Not enough people in the region are trained to insert IUDs or implants, which often means an additional wait. But recruiting support will take time.
The words "birth control" are immediately associated with "liberal thoughts and people having sex willy-nilly. And, really, our goal is helping people control their futures. She thinks about her peers who married young because they got pregnant and felt that they had no choice -- only to get divorced young, too.
Johnson, who lives in Whitesburg, is 32, single and fosters a toddler. She also works at Appalshop , a cultural and media hub housed in a rustic wooden structure that serves as a mouthpiece for Appalachian voices and ideas. By raising awareness about birth control options, Willa Johnson hopes people in eastern Kentucky can better shape their futures.
With the help of five young women Johnson recently hired -- two high school seniors and three college students -- her team is building a website and producing stories that will speak to people in this region. Among their projects are a radio essay about being denied birth control because of religious beliefs, a conversation with a high school principal about how schools deal with teen pregnancies, and video interviews with doctors serving the area. I want them pushed out of their comfort zone.
They're playing cards and don't stop dealing or looking at their hands to talk. Wilma Ritchie, 77, a mother of eight, is less absolute. She talks about her own daughter, who was advised by a doctor to have an abortion.
Her daughter refused; the baby died as soon as it was born. Then she answers quietly, almost under her breath, "I don't think it's right, but if a woman's life is at risk, well These women were taught to mind their parents and not have sex until they were married. They worked hard to care for their own, which is why the scourge of drugs, a reliance on government programs and the fact that babies are being passed off to foster homes and grandparents make some of them shake their heads.
But while these women largely represent the way it was, over at community radio station WMMT, located at Appalshop, Zelma Forbes proves that there have always been exceptions. She's a year-old community college math instructor who doubles as "Sweet Tater," the name she uses each week during her two-hour radio program dedicated to Old Appalachian music. Forbes, who was married once for 10 years, presses play so Sheila Kay Adams can sing, "I wish I was a single girl again, Lord, Lord, don't I wish I was a single girl again.
I didn't like him, either. Growing up on a farm in Greenup County to the north, watching the animals taught her plenty. Her older sisters filled her in on details like menstruation. Always curious, she dug deeper, flipping through biology books.
She was in high school and college in the '60s, when friends had abortions before it was legal.