My old debating buddy and men’s right activist Glenn Sacks sent me a note about this post of his: Girl Commits Suicide After Being Expelled from School for Having an Abortion. Here’s an excerpt or two:
Last night my wife and I attended the 15-year-reunion for a Catholic School where I once taught. I taught most of the attendees World History as sophomores.
It was quite a way-back machine. I remembered some names and I recognized some faces, but didn’t do too well at connecting them. Still, many of the students remembered me (fondly, believe it or not), and I enjoyed seeing them again.
One student I wanted to see was Elena, who had been one of my favorites. She and her boyfriend Darian, who was also in my class, were expelled from the school in mid-year because Elena had gotten pregnant and had an abortion at Planned Parenthood.
The day they were expelled from school I had been out sick, and I was later told that they had come to my room after being expelled to see if I could defend them and get the expulsion reversed. I always felt a little guilty about having been out that day, though of course there was nothing I could’ve done about the expulsion anyway. It was quite a surprise–I had no idea she was even pregnant…
I was looking for her at the party last night and when I couldn’t find her I asked Cathy, who organized the event, if she knew whether Elena was coming. She got an odd look on her face, and told my wife and I:
Elena was very depressed after being expelled. She was cut off from her friends and the life she had. She got depressed and her life spiraled down.
A few years later she hanged herself. I was dating a guy whose brother was a friend of hers and he was the one who found her and cut her down.
My jaw dropped. It’s still on the floor. I guess we’ll never know to what degree her expulsion led to her suicide, but it certainly seems that it was a major factor. And however one feels about abortion, I’ve always opposed making pariahs out of scared girls who find themselves in a bad situation.
Glenn, more than most who beat the drum for the cottage industry known as the “men are victims too, and it’s mostly feminism’s fault” lobby, takes a liberal line on certain issues. He’s caught flak from some of his normal allies, who lean well to the political right, for standing up time and again for gays and lesbians. And I welcome the concern he expresses in this piece.
It’s a good time to talk again about teens and abortion. The initiative that won’t die is back on the California ballot this fall: Proposition 4, which requires parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. We beat two earlier incarnations of this proposition (73 and 85) in 2005 and 2006, but its wealthy conservative backers are nothing if not relentless. Given the stakes that they perceive to be at play, I admire their tenacity even as I reject their basic premise. (For more on parental notification, read this old post of mine opposing the identical proposition 85 a few years ago. And check out Mermade’s piece from just this past weekend.)
The story of what happened to Glenn’s old student is desperately sad. My initial inclination is to hold the school which expelled her accountable — at least in significant part — for her suicide. My more right-wing friends would reject that notion, and might even argue that guilt over the abortion was a prime instigator for Elena to take her life. But if guilt was a motivating factor in the suicide, that guilt was something externally imposed on to Elena rather than her own organic response to terminating a pregnancy. Of course, in the absence of a very detailed suicide note, folks on both sides of the abortion divide could argue about this until the proverbial cows wander back into the barn. It’s axiomatic that we come to these painful anecdotes, all of us, with our own prejudices. We interpret a tragedy in a way that fits not only our worldview but our deepest instincts about sexuality and ethics.
It’s obvious that a school which has a policy of expelling teens for becoming pregnant (whether they choose an abortion or not) is encouraging those teens to terminate a pregnancy. After all, an abortion can be kept secret — at some point, a continued pregnancy will become obvious. Though Elena was not able to conceal her abortion, many teenage girls are able to do so — and as a consequence, are able to stay in religiously affiliated schools. I’ve been in youth ministry for many years, and I’ve worked with a lot of girls in situations similar to Elena’s. And here’s one thing I’m absolutely certain of as a result: teenage girls, even in the frenzy of anxiety that often follows a positive pregnancy test, are rational actors. If keeping the baby means certain expulsion and public humiliation, while terminating the pregnancy means a fairly good shot at staying in school and avoiding being shamed, a whole lot of girls are going to choose abortion. Indeed, there’s a basic rule here that the right-wing misses over and over again: shame incentivizes abortion. The greater the stigma of pre-marital teenage sex, the greater the pressure to “make it all go away quietly.”
It’s enough to make some of us on the religious left wonder: is the right’s real concern protecting life, or is it limiting sex to marriage? In a nation where fully a fifth of abortions are performed on married women, and in a nation where rape is so tragically common, it’s absurd to suggest that abstinence before marriage is somehow the magic bullet that will end all abortion. It’s no accident that countries with relatively liberal abortion laws, equal protections for women, and widespread availability of contraception (the Netherlands, Sweden, etc.) have much lower abortion rates than countries that are virulently anti-abortion (Nicaragua, Colombia, etc.) What changes abortion rates is not the law, nor religious conversion, but access to a full range of reproductive choices, starting with the right to access birth control — and the right of women to refuse sex to boyfriends or husbands!
I long for a world where abortion is unthinkable. I long for a world where the only time an egg is fertilized by a sperm is when both the ejaculator and the ovulator are making an informed decision to conceive a child whom they want badly and for whom at least one of the two has the financial and emotional resources for which to care. I long for a world where each positive pregnancy test is greeted with joy, not terror. And I long for a world where religious leaders do not make the indefensible and disastrous assertion that pleasure is only properly found in complete vulnerability to fecundity.
Working with teens has led me to a few tentative conclusions. First, some teens are ready for sex, some aren’t. 16 is not 16 is not 16. (Frankly, some 30 year-olds aren’t ready for sex, but let’s let that pass.) Second, of those teens who are emotionally prepared for sexual intercourse, most are not willing and prepared to become parents. Third, readiness — in any sense — for parenthood ought not to be an indicator of whether or not a teenager is ready to make an informed and enthusiastic choice to become sexually active. Good sex education does many things based on these assumptions. Good sex education for teens reassures them that despite what they might believe, not “everyone” is “doing it.” Saying “no”, or “not yet”, is often a very wise decision. Indeed, the people who are best equipped to say a heartfelt “yes” are almost certainly those who have already demonstrated an ability, in a similar sexualized circumstance, to say “no”! And good sex education challenges young people to make sexual choices that are congruent with their developing values about relationships and the world.
The story Glenn tells about Elena is very sad. It’s also infuriating. And it ought to be a reminder that protecting life is about more than teaching abstinence. It’s about creating a culture in which young people have the chance to make the best possible decisions for themselves. And since surprises — like unintended pregnancies — will happen despite even the most careful precautions, we need to create a culture of life that welcomes and celebrates that surprise.
I’ll repeat: shame does not incentivize abstinence. It incentivizes abortion, covers up abuse, and leads us to abandon our young people when they need us most.
Californians, please join me in voting no on Proposition 4 this November.