Forget abortion: What women in Appalachian Kentucky really want

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."
    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.
    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.
    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.

    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.
    The dozen or so who stream in are from Whitesburg and nearby towns, the big city of Lexington and even the nation's capital.
    Their goal? 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 t