When I was 16 and living in Bible Belt, I was raped. And then I was confronted with a very adult decision without a lot of facts at hand to help me. So when I heard that the Supreme Court this week decided to let Arkansas’ abortion restrictions stand, I became more worried than ever that teens will face a similar scenario in a country where choice is supposed to be their constitutional right.
As a Charlotte, N.C. high schooler, my sexual and reproductive health education consisted of an animated film demonstrating how a sperm fertilizes an egg. That was it. Nobody told me how the sperm and egg actually find each other! So I didn’t understand how humans or any other mammals have sex.
I was a typical teen: a bit of a class clown, very insecure physically, maybe a little extra weight here and there. What I now know is that I was also in the throes of hormonal surges without any understanding of how they were affecting me or my peers. None of us had that information.
During a night that I will never forget, I lost my virginity to an older, college guy after meeting him at a party. Frankly, I had no idea what was happening. I drank too much and ended up in a bedroom not familiar to me, with this “man” who was, in retrospect, quite adept at making me feel “safe.” And then IT happened. I was startled. I remember crying to myself while he was on top of me confused, embarrassed, and ashamed that somehow I had lost control and I was now “a slut.”
Today we are more and more correctly calling this rape. Forty-plus years ago, it was my fault for being a ‘slut.”
He took me home and I looked at him knowing the answer but asked anyway, “Will I hear from you again?”
“Probably not,” he said flatly.
One missed period later, without a clue that pregnancy could be the root cause, a friend suggested I get tested. I did and I was.
Panicked, I had nowhere to turn but home. I told my parents.
My mother, the more devout Catholic, vomited and went to Florida to stay with her sister until it was “over with.” I later learned my mother was less concerned about my abortion than about her fellow Catholic parishioners’ judgment of our family.
My Father became my protector and caretaker. He called Planned Parenthood and scheduled an appointment for an abortion. But first, we were required (by PP – not the government) to attend counseling. We learned what it means for me to be sexually active and how to use protection. And I had an abortion. It also happens to be the first time I had a gynecological exam.
I also learned from my father that my paternal grandmother had a back-alley abortion when she was a teenager pre-1920 (ironically the year Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood). We cried together and shared relief it was over.
The shame and judgment brought on to me during this event and for many years after came from many sources: myself, my mother, our church, the southern narrative. And it affected me deeply. It also has fed my conviction that abortion is a very personal choice for everyone and I now fundamentally understand that pregnancy can be prevented through empathy and education.
Fact-based, Empathetic Sexual Education Works
The narrative that I am hearing now, from those on the right and the Trump administration are not moving in the right direction to prevent pregnancy or to support those in my situation.
The Trump administration’s path to institutionalize abstinence-only education is naive at best and at worst socially devastating. If the goal is to reduce the rate of pregnancy among teens such as my former self, the appropriate first step would be to look at the data, which clearly show that the increased and improved use of contraception and real sexual education, drives the decline of pregnancy among U.S. teens (see chart). The Guttmacher Institute has been keeping data on this for years and the numbers don’t lie.
Several things may have contributed to this decline, not the least of which is the increased implementation of sexual education programs that help kids understand their bodies, sex, and sexuality. These programs coincidentally received increased funding from the Obama administration through two new sex ed initiatives, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP) and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). (Planned Parenthood offers a full history of U.S. sex education here.)
And LOOK at the chart above! See where the lines take a severe dip??
Had I received the kind of comprehensive sexual education provided through organizations like Advocates for Youth, SIECUS, or Planned Parenthood during school, with my male peers, starting in kindergarten, I would have had practical tools and information to keep me safe. WE would have known what “consent” looks like and how to have healthy sexual relations. We would have understood all the ways to protect ourselves, while also being guided with the reality “HUMANS HAVE SEX” (I understand VP Mike Pence may disagree. but the truth is we just do).
I was sitting in the lap of white privilege when this happened to me and was lucky to have a supportive male role model. Imagine the kids who wake up hungry, in single-parent homes, live in economic despair and are going through hormonal changes without good sexual education to help them. Sex and risky behavior can even be an escape from their reality. It is our DUTY to make our kids’ realities more safe. Hiding under a rock doesn’t help.
I’m speaking to you Arkansas, Ohio, Iowa, Texas! I’m speaking to you Trump Administration, which has now hamstrung Planned Parenthood and other critical Title X providers through your nonsensical funding restrictions. In the face of all the statistics, you have decided to go back to the 1960s narrative? The data clearly show that more information results in fewer pregnancies and abortions. And isn’t that what we all want?
Statistics also consistently show that access to fully operating Planned Parenthood clinics decreases the number of abortions in those areas where services are available. So why would we limit them with a gag rule? The vast majority of federal money that Planned Parenthood does receive goes toward preventive health care, birth control, pregnancy tests and other women’s health services. But now Arkansas may have one clinic with the services most needed. One! In the whole state.
So how do we keep our kids safe – from themselves, from a hostile and violent world – and help usher them into a productive and meaningful life? By waking up to the reality Humans Have Sex. By teaching them comprehensive sex ed from Kindergarten through 12th grade. By providing anonymous resources to aid and support them through their very confusing hormonal surge years, especially if parents don’t know how. And finally by recognizing there is no such thing as PRO LIFE and PRO ABORTION.
The options are only Pro-Choice and Anti-Choice. My best advice to the Anti-Choice crowd is please be compassionate. Trust that women are smart enough to make their own decision. Trust in Love. Trust we are all aligned that “abortions should be legal and infrequent.” (Thank you HRC.)
Pay attention to Ireland, which just reversed its anti-abortion 8th Amendment.
Restricting access to information and services will not produce the desired effect. We in the women’s reproductive health industry know this. And I know this. I lived it.
Mary Tucker is CEO of UPIC Health, a contact center and revenue cycle management outsourcing firm focused on meaningful engagement in care. UPIC Health is based in Chantilly and Norfolk, Va.