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Teen mothers need support, not shame. Adolescent girls and young women experience the highest rates of unplanned pregnancy, as well as the highest rates of sexual abuse and violence in dating relationships.

Of Rape and Roe

What the war on women means for pregnant teenagers.

BY Ann Russo

"I had been taught that premarital sex was shameful and wrong, that pregnancy was cause for further family shame, embarrassment, and dishonor, and that abortion was murder. I had no idea where to turn."

Forty years after Roe v. Wade, even as polls show a majority of Americans supporting women’s reproductive rights, the possibilities for women’s reproductive justice feel surprisingly dim. Each day, it seems, brings another effort to undermine and attack women’s life choices, one of the most recent being a bill introduced in New Mexico to jail rape survivors who choose abortions. The bill follows months of Republican legislators' trotting out recycled rape myths, undermining rape survivors to bolster anti-abortion policies. These disembodied debates over rape and abortion dangerously overlook the complex contexts in which young women struggle to make choices that will impact the rest of their lives. I know this, because I once was one.

When Rep. Phil Gingrey conjured up what he thought to be a common sense “non-legitimate rape” scenario—involving “a scared-to-death 15-year-old” who  “becomes impregnated by her boyfriend and then has to tell her parents … ‘Hey, I was raped'”—he merely added fuel to the cultural fire that dismisses and marginalizes young women who fight for sexual agency and who are in dire need of knowledge, resources and support to help them negotiate dating relationships. 

Gingrey’s “story” took me back 37 years, to when I was a first-year college student in an abusive relationship, pregnant and terrified. Like many young women my age, I had no framework to label my relationship as abusive. I had had no sex ed, and I grew up in a conservative, Roman Catholic, sex-negative community. I had been taught that premarital sex was shameful and wrong, that pregnancy was cause for further family shame, embarrassment and dishonor, and that abortion was murder. I had no idea where to turn. I only knew for sure that my father would “kill me” no matter what I did. At the time, I felt abortion was my only option, a choice requiring deep silence, shame and isolation from friends and family—and ultimately from myself. 

It’s not so different today. Adolescent girls and young women experience the highest rates of unplanned pregnancy, as well as the highest rates of sexual abuse and violence in dating relationships. A Harvard School of Public Health study found that girls experiencing dating violence are four to six times more likely than non-abused girls to become pregnant. Having worked with young women over the past 30-plus years, both in college and in youth organizations, I've witnessed the devastating impact of this culture of shame and blame. Informed by the same rape culture that creates a classification of “legitimate rape,” many young women find it hard to address dating violence and sexual assaults that do not fit the brutal-stranger-rape model. When these young women find themselves pregnant, the dynamics of these relationships make their decision-making that much more complicated and painful.

Faced with families, schools and religious institutions that blame, shame and punish them, sexually active young women are left with few alternatives. Thanks to abstinence-only sex education, young women and men are thrown even deeper into the ignorance abyss. In an abstinence-only curriculum, there’s no affirmation of young women’s sexual agency, and certainly no formal education about sexuality, pregnancy and family building, nor any skill-building toward healthy and loving sexual relationships. Instead, abstinence-only education amplifies a sex-negative, punitive environment that fosters unhealthy and abusive relationships. According to a new study, states that prescribe abstinence-only education have much higher rates of teen pregnancy, contributing to the U.S.'s leading in teen pregnancy rates among industrialized countries. Despite this, in October, the federal government gave 5 million dollars in grants to such programs. As a result, many young women remain isolated and ignorant as they attempt to navigate their sexual and reproductive lives.

The problem stems not simply from a paucity of knowledge and skills, but from the lack of access to reproductive health care and contraception. Reproductive health care has been under considerable attack: Planned Parenthood reports that since 2010, lawmakers have introduced more than 2,000 cuts to women’s reproductive health services, including breast exams and cancer screenings, as well as birth control and abortion. On Dec. 31st, a state judge affirmed Texas' ban on funding to Planned Parenthood, which, as a provider of the state's Women’s Health Program, had been providing 48,000 poor women in Texas with annual health exams, cancer screenings and birth control. In the past couple of years, state and federal funding of rape crisis services and domestic violence agencies have faced severe budget cuts; in 2012, federal and state funding of these programs was cut even more. These health care, social services and community education programs are essential for young women’s understanding of their experiences and their options. 

Some people, like Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, might say young women should simply live with the consequences, given that it is “God’s will.”  But most teen moms do not have the social support, educational opportunities and economic resources necessary to build the best life for themselves and their children. It is no wonder that young mothers struggle with poverty, low educational attainment, and physical and mental health issues. They face one obstacle after the next in their efforts to create loving and healthy families: Some are abandoned by their families; many are kicked out of school or forced into alternative schools; employers do not want to hire them; and many religious institutions respond with pity and shame. In short, there are few affirmations of their life decisions in the broader culture; instead, they find themselves stigmatized.

If nothing else, the Roe v. Wade anniversary and the renewed debate over the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) are opportunities to recommit ourselves to untangling the rape-and-abortion debate and moving closer to real reproductive justice.  A justice framework compels us to consider the social and economic conditions that impact women’s and men’s decisions about whether or not to have children and about how to create the most affirmative, healthy and supportive environment for those decisions. Most significantly, it orients us toward creating a world where decisions about whether to have children and whether to parent are not made under desperate circumstances. 

I can only hope my now-10-month-old daughter will one day inhabit a world where the sexual assault of young women is not dismissed, where young women’s sexual identities and activities are not stigmatized and punished, and where healthy, non-abusive relationships are the norm, rather than the exception. We have a long, long way to go.

Ann Russo PhD is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project and Associate Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

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