January 17, 2005
It was a shocking statement to hear my friend Joan say, “I personally don’t think sex education is comprehensive enough.” But she made perfect sense.
“Comprehensive” has come to mean “condoms and birth control” in debates about sex education. Comprehensive sex educators insist on the necessity of demonstrating condoms and instructing students on birth control. But condoms and birth control were the last thing on Joan’s mind.
She has spent years counseling women who sought her out to deal with the negative consequences of their abortions. Their pain is easy for her to understand. At the age of 19, over twenty years ago, Joan had an abortion, too.
“I was a college freshman when I got pregnant,” she recalls, “and my boyfriend insisted that I have an abortion. He wanted to finish school and we would get married after that. I gave in to his desires.”
Like so many young women today, Joan thought love was the focus of their relationship. “I thought we were in love….I wasn’t disturbed by the pregnancy at all. I was excited about it. I really wanted the baby, but he put pressure on me….I didn’t want to lose him.”
Isolated at the time, relying on her boyfriend’s advice, Joan had the abortion. Only later, after severe medical complications arose, did her parents find out. But more important to Joan were the severe emotional consequences.
Her boyfriend was unable to handle her emotions and took Joan to see his family psychiatrist. “His psychiatrist told me that he couldn’t see any reason for my depression and my grief and my regret…that I had done the right thing and I needed to get over it and get on with my life.” Only two months after the abortion performed for his sake, her boyfriend left.
Not a religious person at the time, and unaware of fetal development, Joan still felt extreme shame and guilt. “I knew that I was pregnant with a baby I wanted. And immediately afterwards, I knew that that baby…I would never hold that baby.”
Eventually, Joan married and became the mother of two children. Her life then was filled with “triggers,” moments when her abortion would come to life, and emotions would flood her. “When our son was born, I just looked at him and thought, “He’s not your first child. He’s your second. And your first you gave back. You don’t deserve this one.”
Striving to become the perfect, loving mother and to reclaim the pain of her abortion, she began working at a local crisis pregnancy center. It was there where, working over eight years with pregnant moms and women who had had abortions, Joan found healing. She learned she was not alone. Her experiences of abandonment, shame and guilt were common among other post-abortive women.
Joan looks at sex education today and criticizes the failure to discuss the obvious…the pregnant elephant in the room. “I don’t believe they talk about the consequences strongly enough.” Condoms have a pregnancy failure rate for teens of approximately 22%. “I believe,” Joan says, “that if abortion is talked about as a possible consequence to sexual activity. Kids might make a different choice about becoming sexually active.”
Even when abortion is discussed, Joan points out, “It’s been sugar-coated… ‘This is nothing more than a very simple, quick medical procedure, probably not as traumatic as having a tooth pulled.’”
While some educators have begun to change their rhetoric, Joan is quick to challenge their fence-sitting. “Either it is a horrible heart-wrenching difficult decision with all of the implications of that, with the emotional damage and the reality of what it does to the child…or it is simpler than having a tooth pulled. Which is it?”
Coupled with the lack of comprehensive discussions about abortions, sex educators offer almost no information on fetal development. Over 138,000 abortions were performed in 2001 on women age 19 and under according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Often facing an abortion decision in isolation, teens may lack true knowledge about the stage of development of their baby. Years later, when pregnant with a child they will keep and with intimate knowledge of fetal development, they often experience a delayed and traumatic reaction to their abortion.
Joan speaks openly about abortion these days. And she calls others to do the same. There is a pregnant elephant in the room, and we need to start talking openly about what to do with it.
The next time an educator promotes comprehensive sex education to you, ask them if they present the harmful consequences of abortion to young people. Ask them if they teach young people about the development of a baby in the womb. And if they don’t, ask them, “Why not?”
Joan is right. If we’re going to be comprehensive, it’s time to start discussing the pregnant elephant.
June 5, 2004: Unplanned Joy
December 10, 2004: The Best Part of Snuggling
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