Dallas Teenager Deserves Compassion, Not Prosecution

The real crime scene in this scenario isn't a high school bathroom stall; it's Texas' rigid and discriminatory reproductive health-care system.

The real crime scene in this scenario isn't a high school bathroom stall; it's Texas' rigid and discriminatory reproductive health-care system. Shutterstock

Dallas police believe a teenager gave birth in a restroom stall at Woodrow Wilson High School last Friday. In the ensuing media flurry, local news outlets have included the following statements or quotes in their reports:

It was after 6 p.m. when Dallas police carried the tiny body out in a black duffle bag, placing it carefully in the back of an ambulance … Police say they don’t know how far along the mother’s pregnancy may have been, but they want to know the circumstances of how it ended. (CBS DFW)

Students and staff at the high school will be offered counseling services. Police are, of course, encouraging anyone who knows who abandoned the fetus to contact the Dallas Police Department. (TheBlaze)

The bathroom is being treated as a crime scene, the [Dallas Independent School] district said. (ABC WFAA)

“We’re reviewing video, talking to the teachers, trying to determine if anybody has any knowledge of any student that may have had something going on in their life, and pray,” said Major John Lawton with the Dallas Police Department. (Fox 4 KDFW)

[Dallas Police] are reviewing video and will speak with teachers and students in hopes of finding something that will lead them to the “suspect”—[Lawton] did use the word suspect, and when asked if she would be charged with a crime once she was located, he would not elaborate. (Lakewood Advocate)

I have not read any coverage of this story that has indicated an interest in the teenager’s well-being, or in pointing out the systemic failures that may have played a fundamental role in these events. Nor have any officials or media representatives mentioned any attempts to identify the person who impregnated the teenager, whether to hold them equally responsible or to offer them assistance.

Although it is possible that the teenager did not know of the pregnancy—children and adolescents who become pregnant can often ignore, deny, or misinterpret the symptoms of pregnancy, even late into gestation—until passing the fetus in the restroom stall, police and school district authorities appear to be working from the assumption that the fetus was criminally (intentionally or negligently) abandoned. After all, officials have urged anyone who knows who the teenager is—using the word “suspect”—to provide information that will assist their investigation.

Beyond the implied punitive framework, referring to the teenager as “mother” also unjustly creates a context that can only harm the adolescent, as does reporting that the “tiny body” was removed from the school and placed “carefully” in an ambulance. Major Lawton’s euphemistic and incoherent statement, too, encourages no confidence in the way involved adults will handle this teenager’s future. All students “have something going on” in their lives, and prayer is a poor substitute for an assurance that the teenager will not be prosecuted and that, more importantly, the blame for what happened most likely lies with our state government.

I do not mean to dismiss the trauma experienced by students and staff, but too much focus has been placed on the spectacle of this fetus, and far too little on several real tragedies: that Texas provides no sex education (an abstinence-only curriculum does not qualify as education); has the highest uninsured rate in the nation yet has repeatedly cut funds for family planning; and has enacted restrictions on abortion so severe that one million women of reproductive age now live farther than 100 miles from an abortion clinic. Minors who seek an abortion must also have proof of parental notification and consent, or must obtain a judicial bypass.

These and other barriers have shaped an increasingly rigid and discriminatory reproductive health-care system in Texas. That is the crime scene here, and that should be the focus of the conversation. And authorities and officials should only be offering the teenager compassion, health care, and protection.