The fight for reproductive freedom should start in the classroom
By Samantha Dercher, Federal Policy Director
Here are a few (of many) ridiculous things lawmakers said about abortion this month:
- They advocated for a ban on “attempted abortion” without being able to define what that term even means.
- They told women that they can still end their pregnancies…as long as they don’t know they’re pregnant.
- They proclaimed that ectopic pregnancies can be re-implanted into the uterus (they can’t).
Unfortunately, the above examples are not speculative fiction nor are they part of a dystopian novel. This is America in 2019. State legislators actually did and said all of these things in the last month, while crafting abortion bans that threaten the lives and livelihoods of every person capable of pregnancy, as well as our families.
Why don’t the people pushing these dangerous bills actually know anything about the reproductive system? How can these legislators – overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual men – attempt to force us to give birth against our will? Especially considering they have no understanding of how menstruation, contraception, pregnancy, miscarriage, and birth function?
The answer is shame and stigma.These are the tools employed by those in power to keep the rest of us silent about our sexual and reproductive health.
We are taught that we can’t talk about our miscarriages. Instead, many of us suffer alone, even though, among people who know they are pregnant, about 10 to 15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.
We are taught to be ashamed of our abortions even though 24% of American women will have an abortion by age 45, as will many transgender men and nonbinary individuals.
And we are taught to stay silent so that the propaganda of anti-abortion extremists can control the narrative – and therefore control our bodies, too.
Most sex education classes fail to cover life-saving, health-affirming information about abortion care. Worse yet, six states prohibit discussion of abortion in sex ed classes altogether. The debate over the recent abortion ban in Alabama has been misguided and misinformed. It has almost exclusively focused on why child survivors of sexual violence need to access abortion. Instead, it should be about how abortion access enables ALL of us to have bodily autonomy and control over our lives.
The bills we’ve seen in Alabama, Ohio, and elsewhere aren’t about heartbeats – they are about preventing people from having control over their own reproductive health care. A few minutes of one comprehensive sex ed class could teach these legislators that a fetus doesn’t have a functioning heart at six weeks into the pregnancy.
We need to be able to say that abortions may be tragedies for some people, but they can be freeing and life-affirming for others. We need to reduce the shame and stigma around talking about sex and sexuality because, without those honest conversations, we have even less of a shot at preventing future attacks on our bodies and rights.
Sex ed is often young people’s first opportunity to get accurate information on sexuality and reproduction. Alongside the fight for abortion rights, we must also fight for comprehensive sex ed in every state, county, and school district, to combat the spread of false information, and facilitate honest and accurate discussions that reduce stigma and shame.
Without comprehensive sex ed, young people often lack the information they need to prevent unintended pregnancy and they are more vulnerable to believe unreliable information on the internet, where organizations like crisis pregnancy centers can push anti-science, anti-abortion misinformation onto people desperately searching for answers.
We need to have more conversations and implement more policies that reflect truths like:
- 7 in 10 Americans support abortion access;
- People have abortions for a variety of reasons; and
- We all have the right to give or withhold consent–not just to sex–but also to sexual and reproductive health decisions and care.
That’s why we at SIECUS talk about sex ed as a vehicle for social change. Because right now, young people in abstinence-only (now called “Sexual Risk Avoidance”) programs are being taught that their desires are wrong, that contraception is ineffective, that the sexual assault they’ve experienced has made them unloveable, that miscarriages shouldn’t be discussed, and that abortions are sins.
We need comprehensive sex ed for the young people we are currently failing. It’s long past time to implement laws and policies that expand it nationwide. Young people have a right to receive the tools and the power they need to control their lives, protect their bodies, and be open and honest about their health. And that includes a complete understanding of abortion that is rooted in evidence, not ideology.