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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.”

“Yes.”

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.