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This past summer, Oklahoma legislators decided to rethink their approach to sex education in public schools. Republican representative Ann Coody authored a bill, the state voted and approved it, and Governor Mary Fallin signed it into law. What is now known as the Humanity of The Unborn Child Act, which seeks to educate Oklahoma teens through materials that "clearly and consistently teach that abortion kills a living human being" and with the stated goal of "achieving an abortion-free society" will go into effect on November 1.
Among the bill's myriad proposals, it calls upon the state's health and education departments to co-conceive an "instructional program" to be given to public schools. There exist just a few required bits of information, as outlined in the bill: "accurate, scientifically verifiable information concerning the probable anatomical and physiological characteristics of the unborn child at two-week gestational intervals;" information regarding local prenatal health care access, but nothing about medical facilities where an abortion could possibly be performed; and absolutely "no component of human sexuality education."
Oklahoma's egregious approach to sex education in its public schools is not entirely surprising. While the federal government has funneled money into sex education programs for public schools—mainly as abstinence-only programs since Ronald Reagan passed the Adolescent Family Life Act in 1982—it's fallen on states to define their own approach to sex education. So, how a public school chooses to teach (or not teach) their students about everything from sex to condoms to abortion varies from state to state.
"We have some states that are understanding that [education] should be around health promotion and sexuality, but then there are some states that are still holding onto the idea that we need to be talking about abstinence only," says Chitra Panjabi, the president and CEO of SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. "But abstinence-only isn't even a form of education. It's a lack of information."
Therefore, there are states like California, in which school districts provide comprehensive, medically-accurate information not only about abortion, as well as about sexual assault and harassment. By contrast, there are also states like Oklahoma, where it's against the law for a program or state employee to refer students to any medical facility that provides abortions. California is one of only three states that poses abortion as a possible option one could choose after becoming pregnant, according to data collected for Broadly by SEICUS.
California is one of only three states that poses abortion as a possible option one could choose after becoming pregnant.
"So many people have engaged in sex by the time they graduate high school," Panjabi says, "and it's a very normal part of their lives. But, if a young person experiences an unintended pregnancy, they need the information to make informed decisions for themselves. More so, because they have the right to that information."
Jade*, a 19-year-old in New Mexico, was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school when she got pregnant. The only sex education she remembers having took place in 8th grade, which was both optional and abstinence-only. According to 2008 data, New Mexico has the highest rate of teen pregnancy, and the state's sex education program is not required to be age- or culturally-appropriate or medically accurate. So her only knowledge about abortion came through her mother, a Christian doctor. Identifying as anti-abortion before becoming pregnant, Jade only knew of the procedure "as a sin."
However, upon discovering that she was pregnant, she knew she wasn't ready to raise a child; battling depression and recovering from a recent suicide attempt, she knew it wasn't her time to be mother. Because of this, she says talking to a school nurse would have been out of the question—she feared they would have reported her to her mother. So, for information about the procedure, Jade turned to the internet, which she says was unreliable; she found herself taking different pills and vitamins, not knowing what to do, until she called up the potential fathers to help her make the decision. When the day came, she skipped school.
"I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, about three-and-a-half hours south of Albuquerque, but at that time, there were only clinics in Albuquerque," she says. "One of the guys drove me the three-and-a-half hours each way [to the clinic at the University of New Mexico hospital.] He paid for the abortion, about 600 bucks."
Jade remembers the clinic and doctors being "amazing and so informative," and is thankful to have made the decision she did. "I'm 19, going to college, and studying abroad next semester," she says. "None of this would have been possible with a child." However, while she now remembers her decision to get an abortion as "easy," she knows it isn't always so for everyone—especially those with limited resources to help make an informed decision.
I've never, ever regretted it. Teens need to know they have a choice.
"There are parents who don't tell their kid that [abortion] is an option, or tell them it will send them to hell, or that they will regret it their whole life," she says, stressing the importance of sex education. "I've never, ever regretted it. Teens need to know they have a choice."
According to 2015 data from the Centers for Disease and Prevention, 41 percent of US high school students have had sex—43 percent of those students did not use a condom the last time they had sex, and 14 percent used no method of contraception at all. While the number of teen pregnancies and abortions has dropped since 2008, according to a 2016 data from the Guttmacher Institute, "In 2011, there were 31.3 births per 1,000 teen women (down from 40.2 in 2008) and 13.5 abortions per 1,000 teen women (down from 18.1 in 2008)." Some states experienced bigger drops than others, which the authors of the study attribute to "state demographic characteristics, the availability of comprehensive sex education, and knowledge about and availability of contraceptive services," among other things.
While the incidence of unintended pregnancies, which account for 45 percent of all pregnancies in the US, teens are still at high risk. Additionally, "unintended pregnancy" includes pregnancy from rape, a crime that, along with attempted rape and sexual assault, is 3.5 times more likely to happen to a teenager between the ages of 16 and 19 than a member of general population, according to a 1996 study by the US Department of Justice.
"Abortion is not very integrated into sex education at all, and that's because of where we are focused: on contraception and condom use," Panjabi says, which presents a big issue: 26 states require abstinence be stressed, while not one requires the same of contraception.
However, there are some states out there that are proactive with making their sex education as comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate, and realistic as possible. Along with California's medically accurate, abortion-inclusive sex education, New Jersey and Vermont are two other states that address the topic in a non-negative way.
As outlined in New Jersey's 2014 Core Curriculum Content Standards, by the end of grade 12, students learn that "pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood are significant events that cause numerous changes in one's life and the lives of others," and they allow must "compare the legal rights and responsibilities of adolescents with those of adults regarding pregnancy, abortion, and parenting." In Vermont's Education Code, students are taught comprehensive sexuality education, including "information regarding the possible outcomes of premature sexual activity, contraceptives, adolescent pregnancy, childbirth, adoption, and abortion."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a 2010 SIECUS study looked at states where "information or referrals about abortion services may not be given to students, or may only be addressed in the context of potential negative consequences." According to SEICUS, the eight states that currently restrict referrals for or discussion of abortion are: Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma. The laws are as following:
"Schools that offer sex education in school-based health clinics shall include instruction in sexual abstinence, and no funds shall be utilized for abortion referral." (§ 6-18-703)
"…curriculum guides shall not include information pertaining to abortion as an alternative to family planning." (Section 10-16c)
"A school district shall not operate a family resource center or a youth services center that provides abortion counseling or makes referrals to a health care facility for the purpose of seeking an abortion." (Section 156.496)
"No program offering sex education instruction shall in any way counsel or advocate abortion." (§§17:281)
"Clinical abortion shall not be considered a method of family planning, nor shall abortion be taught as a method of reproductive health." (Section 380.1507)
"There shall be no effort in either an abstinence-only or an abstinence-plus curriculum to teach that abortion can be used to prevent the birth of a baby." (Section 37-13-171)
"Public Education on the Humanity of the Unborn Child Fund," requires the state's health department and local schools to provide "educational materials" to the public that "clearly and consistently teach that abortion kills a living human being." (CH. 353)
"Except as to that instruction provided by this chapter relating to complications which may develop from all types of abortions, school districts may not offer programs, instruction, or activities including abortion counseling, information about abortion services, or assist in obtaining abortion, and materials containing this information must not be distributed in schools." (§§ 59-32-10)
For the states that do mention abortion, it's still not guaranteed that schools will provide accurate information, a practice not uncommon for the state-mandated dissemination of abortion facts and statistics. In a 2004 investigation called for by representative Henry A. Waxman, the minority staff of the House Government Reform Committee examined 13 abstinence-only curricula that were taught to millions of school-age youth, and found that only two were accurate; the other 11, which were being used by 69 organizations (school districts, state health departments, hospitals, religious organizations, and anti-abortion organizations) in 25 states, contained unproven claims and outright lies.
Among the lies relating to HIV, pregnancy, and condom use, the curricula furthered proven-false misconceptions about abortion, including that women who undergo the procedure are "more prone to suicide," that a 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person," and that 10 percent of women will become sterile as a result of an abortion. All of which are unfounded and untrue.
Of course, teens today often turn to the internet to seek the information not provided in schools, though even this can be unhelpful and even misleading, as it was for Jade. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 55 percent of adolescents in 7th through 12th grade said they had turned to the internet to look up information pertaining to health issues affecting them or someone they know. Another 2010 study, conducted by the Department of Community and Family Health at the University of South Florida, analyzed 177 sexual health websites and found that 35 percent of those that addressed abortion contained inaccurate information.
In response to misinformation and inconsistencies in sex ed, in January of 2016, Eva S. Goldfarb, Ph.D., a professor of public health at Montclair State University; Elizabeth Schroeder, the former executive director of Answer, a national sexuality education organization; and Gelperin co-authored Rights, Respect, Responsibility, the first-ever K-12 sexuality education curriculum fully mapped to the National Sexuality Education Standards. Working with 50 different health experts, physicians, and educators, among others, the authors sought to create a free, comprehensive curriculum for sex educators around the country—and even the world—that addressed all the topics experts found necessary to the development of healthy knowledge about sexuality. Abortion, along with lessons about adoption and early parenting, remains in all the high school grade level curricula.
we view abortion as something that needs to be normalized as one of a range of options when dealing with unintended pregnancy
"We don't have a standalone lesson because we view abortion as something that needs to be normalized as one of a range of options when dealing with unintended pregnancy," Gelperin says. "Adolescents have a right to be aware of these options to make informed choices, so including [abortion] was a very easy decision for us." Since its release, about 4,000 people have downloaded at least one part or the program, in all 50 states and in 30 different countries internationally.
While there are states like New Jersey and California that are moving in a progressive direction for adolescent health education, both Panjabi and Gelperin stress that in the states where laws are especially restrictive—where policymakers are failing the physical and emotional health, as well as the rights, of adolescents—the only answer is to call out the injustice.
"Parents often assume that the basic aspects of sexuality are being covered in school, and they're shocked to learn there are prohibitions, especially when the education isn't medically-accurate, and is instead judgmental and biased," Gelperin says, referencing anecdotal evidence. "It's up to parents, students, and teachers who are familiar with what it's like to be an adolescent in 2016 to go to boards and advocate [for better sex education] to mend the disconnect between the reality of young people and the limited curriculums."
*Name has been changed.