Shame, suicide, sex education and the unwitting incentivizing of abortion

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.

17 thoughts on “Shame, suicide, sex education and the unwitting incentivizing of abortion

  1. “shame incentivizes abortion”

    Japan has a similar percentage of pregnancies aborted as the United States; but in Japan, abortion has significantly lower level of shame associated with it. I have never seen any data correlating shame and abortion. There are numerous studies showing that abortion is correlated to economic level. So your example of comparing the abortion rates of the Netherlands, Sweden, etc. to Nicaragua, Colombia, etc. is not a fair one unless you control for the country’s economic level, or if you compare countries of similar economic levels with different shame levels for abortion.

    “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.”

    Are you using irony in this statement?

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more about Prop 4. The topic as a whole reminded me of something I read in the most recent issue of Our Truths/Nuestras Verdades (a quarterly magazine that talks about abortion and various feelings about it.) The last piece is the story of a girl who attended a Catholic High School who also chooses abortion, but who does so without many people knowing of it. She talks a lot about how shame, both religious and cultural, curtailed her available options.

    I think that many people’s first choice with an unwanted pregnancy is to wind back the clock and change things. That’s eminently understandable from an emotional perspective, but terribly damning from a policy standpoint. When all possibilities are coated in stigma, we’re simply causing more pain to women and girls who are already in a difficult position.

    That said, I do disagree with you when you say above “[b]ut 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.” I’ve counseled many women who have felt guilt after having an abortion, and while guilt very often does involve feelings of obligation to the external world, it can also be a genuine emotional response of the woman in question. As someone who is virulently pro-choice, I wanted to point this out because I think that the pro-choice movement often encourages silence about difficult feelings after abortion, which can lead to other kinds of shame.

  3. Well, if you look across Europe, abortion rates are higher in countries that are affluent but have slightly more restrictive policies on abortion (UK is more restrictive than Sweden).

    I am not ironic at all. A “culture of life” is about a lot more than reverence for blastocysts, or at least it ought to be. If you want women to keep their babies, then you damn well ought to work double time to make sure that there is no stigma attached to them getting pregnant in the first place. Then, get to work on making sure that they can raise their children without forcing them into a marriage that they may not want or forcing them into poverty. Then, we’re making progress on a “culture of life”. But if you want to save the blastocyst whilst cutting AFDC, you’re all bell and no dinner.

  4. Alice, I agree that we shouldn’t shame women who report pain after an abortion, including guilt. But it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest that the guilt they feel isn’t at least in large part (perhaps not all) due to the cultural rules with which they were raised? Given the vastly different responses to abortion across various cultures, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that guilt is “inherent” or organic in this case — guilt is taught. And gently questioning the teaching may be one way of helping someone work through the guilt, though surely not the only way.

  5. Also, that story was unbelievably sad and a good example of how exactly anti-choicers forget that women have lives, and that their opposition to women’s control of their lives amounts to being objectively anti-life.

  6. “Externally imposed guilt.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this observation and agree with you. A good many people feel guilt due to the cultural rules with which they were raised. When all possibilities are coated with stigma I would expect strong, conflicted feelings to be the outcome. Our culture encourages silence about difficult feelings in general, so it’s no suprise the same types of responses are encouraged after abortion. I wish that would change.

  7. Amanda wrote “anti-choicers forget that women have lives, and that their opposition to women’s control of their lives amounts to being objectively anti-life.”

    Amanda–I understand how you feel but I would add that most of the religious people in the Catholic school where I taught were absolutely sincere and well-meaning in their pro-life beliefs, and I don’t fault them for it. What I object to is the way the administration cast Elena out.

    An interesting question which I don’t know the answer to is if the Los Angeles Archdiocese or most of the other Catholic schools still have expulsion policies for pregnancy or abortion. I seem to remember some people on your side of the aisle doing something about this a few years ago but I don’t remember what the result was.–GS

  8. Glenn has gotten a lot of crap from fellow MRAs who, for reasons I truly have never understood, hate gay men. He also did a brilliant takedown of Gonzman’s defense of Darren Mack.

  9. “Well, if you look across Europe, abortion rates are higher in countries that are affluent but have slightly more restrictive policies on abortion (UK is more restrictive than Sweden).”

    Actually Sweden is significantly more restrictive on abortion than the UK or the US. In Sweden, for pregnancies between 12 and 18 weeks of pregnancy, the pregnant woman is required to discuss the abortion with a social worker before being allowed to have an abortion. An abortion performed after 18 weeks of pregnancy is legal only if the National Board of Health and Welfare authorizes the procedure based on special reasons. In general, such an abortion may not be performed if there is reason to suppose that the embryo is viable. However, if there is a serious threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman, an abortion may be authorized at any time during pregnancy.

    “shame incentivizes abortion”

    By your premise, black women in the US have about five times as much shame than white women. It is the social-economic level differences causing most of the different rates of abortion.

    ( See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/22/AR2008092202831.html?hpid=moreheadlines) In 2004, there were 10.5 abortions per 1,000 white women ages 15 to 44, compared with 28 per 1,000 Hispanic women of that age and 50 per 1,000 black women. That translates into approximately 1 percent of white women having an abortion in 2004, compared with 3 percent of Hispanic women and 5 percent of black women.

  10. Fred, shame is one incentive for abortion. Poverty is another. One cause is not all the causes. Black (and Hispanic) women are presumably more likely to be poor, and thus to lack the resources to raise a child and to access effective contraception. Poverty, shame, lack of comprehensive sex education, an inability to say “no”, a broken condom, a sudden job loss — there are a great many things that make abortion the best of some not very good options. But in the instance of the young schoolgirl of whom Glenn wrote, shame is perhaps the catalyst primus inter pares.

  11. “Depression incentivizes eating lots of chocolate and ice cream” does not mean that the only reason people eat chocolate and ice cream is that they’re depressed.

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  13. I would add that most of the religious people in the Catholic school where I taught were absolutely sincere and well-meaning in their pro-life beliefs, and I don’t fault them for it. What I object to is the way the administration cast Elena out.

    I find it very hard to extend much credit for being well-meaning and sincere when in combination to the exile unto death of a young girl. I don’t think ‘well-meaning’ and ‘sincere’ mean what you think they mean, if they are comparable with casting Elena out. Does Son of Sam get credit for really, truly believing that God told him to righteously kill?

    I get really tired of people being excused for obviously antisocial behavior because they can point to a widely-accepted religious rationale. Those of us who don’t choose to piously mouth similar things are held to account for the consequences of our choices.

  14. Students get expelled from schools, private and public, all the time. Students get expelled for many different reasons: physical violence, sexual harassment, illegal drug use, theft, skipping school, poor academic performance, etc. At private religious schools, you can be expelled for religous reasons. Students and parents are informed on what actions will get students expelled from their school. So are schools suppose to not expel students because the students might end up feeling guilt from being expelled?

  15. Aa someone who was expelled from prep school for theft back in 1981, I can agree that expulsions are sometimes necessary. But there’s a qualitative difference betweeen expelling someone for stealing from other students (either, as in my case, taking money) or plagiarism — and expelling someone for having an abortion off campus. One is a judgment about a violation of the common bonds that hold a community together publicly; the other is an assertion of dominion over the private sphere of someone’s life. They are worlds apart.

    And of course, given our cultural shaming of women who have sex before marriage (especially teens), there’s no question that the potential psychic damage for this kind of expulsion is much, much worse. I was expelled for the sin of greed that had a direct bearing on my fellows; Elena was expelled for a private and immensely difficult act of conscience.

  16. Fred: Again, I’m not disputing that they were entirely sincere about their regret that they ‘had’ to exile this poor girl. I’m questioning their ethical bona fides that they placed the ‘had’ above the girl’s actual needs. She was, after, a girl, not a woman, and needed her community’s help and support to grow into an adult who could take care of herself.

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