Activists in the reproductive health and rights movement often frame our work as protecting every person’s ability to make their own decisions when it comes to abortion. But we don’t always act like we mean it. Too often, we rely on specific stories about what we call extreme circumstances as evidence for opposing restrictive legislation. You can see this in our efforts to combat bills that force a minor to either inform their parents or to obtain consent from them before the adolescents can seek an abortion; in turn, our framing of these issues reflects the patronizing way we often address teen sexuality in general.
We tend to counter this legislation with emails to supporters and testimonies before lawmakers that focus on specific experiences: the young women who became pregnant as a result of incest, or who would be abused or expelled from their homes if they told their parents about needing abortions. And indeed, there are adolescents for whom this is a reality; a national survey found that of the teens who did not tell a parent about seeking an abortion, 22 percent believed they would be kicked out of the house and 8 percent feared they would face violence. We must do all that we can to acknowledge their struggles and provide support to anyone facing sexual or domestic abuse. However, their perspectives are far from the only valid ones. Yet we in the community have cultivated this idea that the only stories we can tell to be compelling or to win are ones of violence. This makes it seem as if we tacitly approve of the idea that only people in danger are worthy of our understanding, which obscures the experiences of the majority of individuals.
We often talk about those who do not involve their parent in their abortion decision having a “good” reason for doing so—again, implying that they would face significant danger if they divulged their need for an abortion. But the threat of abuse is not the only good reason for ensuring that teens have bodily autonomy. When I was a young person living at home, the idea of seeking consent for something my parents may not have approved of was not scary because I would be hurt, but because I was so afraid to disappoint them.
In addition, there was the fact that I was already capable of making my own decisions. And I wasn’t unique: The fact is that huge numbers of young people are already taking control of their sexual choices—which also means they should have control of their reproductive health, including access to abortion. Still, as a country, and even as advocates, it appears we are so uncomfortable with the idea of teen sex that we don’t know how to have real conversations about forced parental involvement laws and their harmful, disrespectful effects. Teens who do not wish to inform their parents about their decision may stall, which can push them later into pregnancy, when the procedure is more complicated, more expensive, and often less readily available. In addition, forced parental involvement laws are one more barrier to care, adding to other restrictions such as cost of services and clinic closures.
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Instead of facing the potential difficulty of acknowledging that all teens—regardless of circumstances—deserve access to abortion care, we trot out just a small fraction of the stories that are out there. This narrow focus perpetuates the stigma about young people’s sexuality that endures in both allies and opponents of reproductive health. Many sex ed organizations, for instance, tiptoe around teen sexuality as if it is something we, as adults, must put up with as a necessary, but distasteful, reality. While I have no doubt these kinds of talking points are frequently rooted in a genuine care for the health of adolescents, they imply that young people need someone to step in and tell them how to behave.
This perpetuates the opposition’s idea that minors can’t make good decisions, so we need to pass laws to ensure parents make all of their choices for them. When we passively reproduce this disrespect for young people, we make it much harder to promote the idea of their agency and to begin a dialogue about sexuality—including reproductive decisions as well as consent, contraception, and identity—being a part of everyone’s lives.
In addition to our framing of these issues, we must also be frank about examining our messengers. A majority of the people featured in press coverage about fights against mandatory notification laws are not young. There are the exceptions, of course: Groups like the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, for example, both actively work with young people in the development and implementation of their reproductive programs and train adults on how to be good allies. Overall, though, whether it is a news segment or a legislative hearing covering the very harmful impacts of these bills, minors are often talked about, but not talked to. Some of this, to be sure, is the fault of media outlets using older people as default credible sources for comment; however, it is also a reflection of whom groups offer as experts, spokespeople, or consultants on the topics at hand.
To address this issue, we can’t simply tell young people to join us. We have to change our language to show that we respect their voices and experiences. Our messaging has to include a range of first-person stories and to truly honor the wealth of knowledge and expertise that adolescents can bring to our work. We also have to reflect on how we are engaging with people in general—including how and where we do our outreach and who asks others to get involved. We need to be working with the people being directly affected by these issues at every stage of the process, not just speaking for them.
This shift in tone would be a very powerful way to combat forced parental notification laws, whose proponents often try to disguise them as ways to improve familial communication. We need to follow the lead of groups like Young Women United, who consider, include, and empower adolescents at every point in working for a common goal of healthy, safe families.
By moving away from a limited and paternalistic way of talking about forced parental involvement, we also open the door for parents like me who want to be good and authentic allies. We can provide a platform for parents to talk about the work they are doing to cultivate a safe and supportive environment, where they hope their kids will turn to them for guidance but will also understand if they seek support from other trusted individuals in their lives. Parents can help to move the conversation to being one where we trust young people, instead of assuming they are not capable.
When it comes to issues like these, which deal with the hot-button topics of abortion and teen sexuality, we often talk about how we have to do what it takes to “win.” There will always be another bill or ballot fight, so we concentrate on what we see as palpable progress, like vote counts. I will grant you that winning is incredibly important when the battles will determine if people get to make their own personal health decisions. Too often, though, we do not even consider different ways of engaging people in the process. We have found the few stories that we think work and we just stick to them, even if this pushes many people aside, perpetuates the stigma of “good” and “bad” abortions, and limits our ability to change the dynamics of the debate to one where, regardless of age, we focus on abortion restrictions’ impact on the health of individuals and our communities.
The fact is that our current strategies disrespect young people and strip them of their agency. This doesn’t feel like winning to me. We have to work together to develop messages that will help to transform the conversation to reflect a broader range of experiences; include the voices and experiences of adolescents themselves; and create real and lasting change in how the public views young people’s need for information and services to manage their own health, lives, and future.