When Our Rights Are Under Attack, We Must Fight to Preserve All Choices—Including the Choice to Parent

Right now, in an environment where our options are dwindling, it cannot feel like we are being marginalized by our own peers too.

[Photo: A teenage parent looks lovingly at her baby]
Advocates for reproductive rights must take the time to deconstruct internal biases and beliefs about young and single-parent families. Shutterstock

The resignation of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has caused many advocates to worry about what this could mean for the future of reproductive rights. Tweets and articles have advised stocking up on emergency contraception, obtaining intrauterine devices, and supporting abortion in the event of Roe v. Wade‘s overturn.

Unfortunately, the responses to this moment of fear have largely focused on preventing and avoiding pregnancy at all costs. What happens to people who cannot access birth control or abortions? After they become pregnant and parents, do we forget about them? When we face these kinds of attacks, we must also talk about which supports, resources, and rights will need to be safeguarded for parents and their children—particularly those who already experience multiple forms of oppression.

To be sure, people who do want to prevent or terminate an unintended pregnancy deserve the ability to do so. But when our rights are under attack, we must fight to preserve all choice. We must also, as a part of working toward reproductive justice, be inclusive of parenting with dignity and respect.

This feeling of invisibility isn’t new. Parents are often excluded from the most important conversations about reproductive rights because advocacy culture now focuses heavily on prevention. Any time there is a public discussion on pregnancy, especially unplanned or teen pregnancy, the mainstream dialogue centers how devastating one can be. This message hits particularly hard in communities of color or communities of lower income. That’s intentional.

When I was 17, I experienced an unplanned pregnancy. When thinking about my options, I had one group of people telling me that an abortion would be an unforgivable sin and a decision I would regret forever. On the other side, people told me that becoming a teen mom would be the end of my life.

Truthfully, I didn’t get to make a choice without feeling like people around me were trying to coerce me one way or another. What was completely missing from my experience were any feelings of agency and autonomy. Everyone was too worried trying to convince me to make their choice, but never my own.

When I decided to become a mother, the mistreatment and coercion didn’t stop. I was stigmatized for my identity as a teen mom: hypersexualized and now stereotyped as promiscuous. Two weeks after giving birth, I was forced into getting a long-acting reversible contraceptive without my consent. For young Latinas like me who have already experienced a pregnancy, the doctor’s fear of having me back in the office and pregnant again was stronger than my right to choose. I know what it was like and I wish my experience could have been different.

The primary narrative in the United States is that out-of-wedlock pregnancy, especially among women of color, should be prevented at all costs. Unfortunately, the introduction of unplanned and teenage pregnancy as a negative outcome was rooted in racist and sexist policies directly connected to the stereotype that young mothers and their babies are a drain on the economy who abuse resources. In Ronald Reagan’s 1986 address to the nation on welfare reform, he perpetuated this myth to the entire country: “Under existing welfare rules, a teenage girl who becomes pregnant can make herself eligible for welfare benefits that will set her up in an apartment of her own, provide medical care, and feed and clothe her. She only has to fulfill one condition—not marry or identify the father. Obviously something is desperately wrong with our welfare system.”

Right before President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform rollout, he named teenage childbearing as the nation’s “most serious social problem” in his 1995 State of the Union. In this speech, he claimed “teen pregnancies and births where there is no marriage” was a national epidemic.

With the help of Hillary Clinton, new nonprofit organizations like the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (now Power to Decide) were created to generate annual campaigns that perpetuated the false and harmful belief that young parents and their families’ needs are costly to taxpayers. The National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy strategically worked with media to drive fear and stigmatize young single parenthood. Smaller local organizations, educators, policymakers, and health-care professionals were all targeted through similar campaigns that would frame young parenthood as an epidemic and young parents as social pariahs.

And it worked: This message has been so effective that today many reproductive rights advocates have unconsciously internalized the belief that pregnancy, especially when you are young or single, needs to be prevented at all costs.

Let’s unpack this. Pregnancy is a choice, parenthood is a choice, and if it’s your body, it’s your choice.

Advocates for reproductive rights must take the time to deconstruct internal biases and beliefs about young and single-parent families. We cannot allow attacks and fear to drive knee-jerk reactions that center pregnancy avoidance as the best choice. To start, we must ensure all people, especially young people, have access to agency, autonomy, and choice. And if we truly believe this, we must present every option without bias or influence. Include parenting, without stereotypes or stigma, as an option in the conversation about pregnancy.

Many reproductive justice organizers already do this by fighting alongside young parents who deserve access to support and resources, like affordable child care, harassment-free education, and safe jobs. They ensure young parents have access to contraception, abortion, and prenatal care, without pushing or perpetuating the idea that one choice has negative consequences. They center young parents and don’t isolate their stories and narratives for public consumption; they provide young parents with opportunities to be activists, leaders, and policy changers. When planning events, gatherings, and support groups, they make events accessible for and inclusive of parents, their partners, and their children. They understand that for some young people, some pregnancies are planned and wanted. And for pregnancies that are unplanned or unwanted, organizers understand that many social injustices impact a person’s ability to safely prevent or terminate one. Throughout all conversations, resistance work, and organizing for reproductive rights, they remember that individuals often have children, families, and communities they are caring for.

Right now, in an environment where our options are dwindling, it cannot feel like we are being marginalized by our own peers too. For those of us who are parenting, our sexual and reproductive choices, our pregnancies, and our children can no longer be up for public debate.

For friends in the movement, remember that a pregnancy or becoming a parent is not the end of a person’s life. With support, resources, and respect, all parents and their families can thrive. We need you to believe in us too.