On the front lines healthcare providers and volunteers meet young women who learn prevention post-infection, who explore contraceptive options after a pregnancy and who are growing up in a culture where sophisticated media outlets sell sex as power.
As Alexa Standard's article Health Providers Unsurprised by Teen STI Rate points out, most healthcare providers are not surprised by the recently released data showing that one-quarter of teenage girls have at least one sexually transmitted disease. Healthcare providers are on the front lines and see first hand the ramifications of anti-knowledge abstinence-only programs. Many of the women I meet through my volunteer work have shared that the first comprehensive sex education they received was delivered following treatment for an STI. So, as another witness on the front lines, I wasn't surprised by the STI teen data either.
My volunteer experience began as a member of a woman's group in St. Louis, Missouri, that partnered with local woman's shelters to teach life-skills and health classes. After extensive training, I was matched with a class and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to volunteer at a transitional shelter for pregnant teens. I walked into the shelter with a well-planned lecture on the benefits of basic budgeting and walked out knowing that we needed to add comprehensive sex education to our curriculum fast.
That first class started out with a brief overview of traditional money management methods that quickly shifted to a discussion of the challenges of managing money when you are a teenage mother. It was a great discussion, so I decided to hang out after class and several students remained to ask me more questions. The teens chatted about how hard it is to balance school, work and parenting. Then the discussion turned to sex, pregnancy and prevention, in that order — because that was the order they had experienced these in.
I'll never forget a fifteen year old mother-to-be telling me that she had thought drinking a certain caffeinated soda following unprotected sex would prevent pregnancy and I'll never forget her shy embarrassment when confessing that she still wasn't sure how her pregnancy happened. Through my work I have met young women who didn't know why they menstruated, thought they could tell by looking if a partner had AIDS and more than one who thought soaking in a bleach bath would prevent pregnancy or even HIV transmission.
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Through my teaching, the disconnect between the policy debate over abstinence-only programs and the reality of young women's lives has been revealed. On one side, proponents of abstinence-only programs claim that they are working, while on the other side, the teen STI infection rate in St. Louis city is the highest in the nation. On the front lines healthcare providers and volunteers like me meet young women who learn prevention post-infection, who explore contraceptive options after a pregnancy and who are growing up in a culture where sophisticated media outlets sell sex as power and speculate over baby bumps — yet sex education can now be summed up by Just Say No.
As Lynda Waddington pointed out in her article Missouri's Sex Ed Follow Federal Government Guidelines, Missouri law used to require that students be presented with "the latest medically factual information regarding both the possible side effects and health benefits of all forms of contraception, including the success and failure rates for the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases." Now, as a result of a ban against trained sex education teachers in the classroom and the addition of an opt-out option, the only groups allowed to teach sex education in Missouri are those that subscribe to abstinence-only guidelines.
St. Louis city is left to confront alarming increases in STD infection numbers among teenswithout award-winning trained sex education experts allowed access to them through the most reliable institution, their schools. The results of this flawed approach walk through the doors of local clinics and shelters for testing, treatment and education. If the teen is lucky, she walks out with her health. With HIV/AIDS infection rates on the rise, there is nothing pro-life about an education policy that increases the odds that the wages of sex will be disease and could be death.
While we struggle to educate in an anti-knowledge environment in Missouri, California just received a boon. The California State Board of Education recently adopted its first set of health education standards (K through 12) and they include a comprehensive sex education curriculum. California says that students should begin learning about risks and prevention in the fifth grade and that high schools should be required to teach students "medically accurate" information about birth control. There are still questions about implementation and parents may chose to opt-out, but such standards will empower California communities to proactively address sexual health and risk among teens.
The ban on award-winning sex education teachers and the promotion of an abstinence-only curriculum have made community outreach all the more important in Missouri. Community groups have joined with healthcare providers to increase the number of trained volunteers doing outreach. AIDS service organizations continue grassroots programs that encourage abstinence, prevention, testing and treatment. But as Emily Douglas so accurately pointed out, four out of four teen girls need better sex education.
From the frontlines it feels like we are fighting a relentless forest fire without water pressure. The news from California gives us hope that reinforcements may be on the way, but the question remains: how many teens will be put at risk while we wait for the return of knowledge to our classrooms?
The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.
This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.
The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.
Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.
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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.
The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.
In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. HellerstedtSupreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriers—including legislation and stigma—that affect people seeking abortion care.
Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate Choices—Abortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.
One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.
The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.
“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.
The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City toprovide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.
To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.
Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.
While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.
At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.
While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.
However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.
“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.
Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.
Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)
It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?
In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.
The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.
As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”
In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.
My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?
Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.
The wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.
“Senseless” is our favorite adjective to describe not just mass killings but all manner of murders. To most any person, regardless of class, race, or station, there is no sense to be found in slaughter. But this depth of unreason plunges further still with some crimes. Such is the case with the mass murder of Black Americans, performed in increments measured by police shootings. No sense, logic, or order can be imposed on something so inherently chaotic, so without reason or purpose.
Yet, countless white people on social media and mass media alike try to find a reason for the murder. He wore a hoodie. She didn’t follow instructions. He didn’t drop the toy gun. He twitched his leg threateningly. They shouldn’t have been in that neighborhood. She was playing her music too loud. They should’ve fixed their taillight. This apparent desire for justification satisfies not only the racist conviction that it is somehow acceptable for a Black person to lay dead from an officer’s sidearm, but also the “just world hypothesis” that too many of us remain addicted to: the false belief in a world where virtue is rewarded and vice is punished, where “everything must happen for a reason.”
To be sure, racist systems of power in the United States have methodically propagated the idea of Blackness as a threat that needs to be controlled, which is a twisted kind of logic unto itself. In this environment, however, where so many—particularly white people—have been weaned on the notion of Black criminality, the wholesale murder of Black men and women by police strikes with a kind of caprice, often driven more by whims, bigotries, and disordered fates than any sense in law enforcement or anything meaningfully tied to the actions of the victims.
As we search for answers in the wake of atrocities—in Dallas, Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and countless other cities—we can begin with this senselessness.
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This attempted analytical strategy is not a new endeavor. In writing about Nazi internment and concentration camps, for example, philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt strove to do the unthinkable: Find sense in a pit of murderous chaos. But it was precisely a lack of sense, she discovered, that was key to the experience the Nazis—and many totalitarians before and since—had tried to create.
There’s no small irony in my invocation of her to understand this epic, continually unfolding crime. Arendt’s contempt of Black youth movements toward the end of her life was breathtaking in its bitter and intellectually uncurious contempt; she, too, had revealed herself to be an anti-Black racist. But like so many people who indulge such prejudices, her more transcendental ideas—such as this one—endure even with her failings.
As Arendt wrote:
The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. (Emphasis mine.)
Her point was that the terror of the camp lay in its disconnect from logic. You might face punishment even if you did nothing wrong, either according to the rules of the camp, or a higher moral authority. Your labors were Sisyphean, their own punishment, and rarely serving some higher end. Even when they were practical labors, they were deliberately inefficient, meant to cause suffering rather than ensure the speedy production of some good. For Arendt, this was central to totalitarian life.
This was how you made human beings superfluous as human beings, as she put it. You removed all sense from their lives, rendered their labors fruitless, took the very thing that makes us human—meaningful activity and life through our work—and rendered it an engine of vile nonsenses. If nothing you do has any connection to your prosperity or well-being, then what really is the point of life but random thrashing?
Whether Arendt herself might have approved of this understanding of her theory or not, the “daily production of senselessness” has bled out of the camps of Europe and into the day-to-day practices of police forces around the world, especially in the United States. In police brutality, too, we see a world of unreason. Death has no connection to guilt or what one can be meaningfully said to “deserve.”
This is what makes the plaintive wailing of the “All Lives Matter” crowd so tone-deaf, especially when they veer in the direction of critiquing every breath of those who have been restrained from breathing freely. Consider Megyn Kelly’s unconscionable second-guessing of Lavish “Diamond” Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, for not rendering aid to her dying partner outside of St. Paul, even as a police officer brandished a gun in her direction. Or CNN analyst Harry Houck, who said that the very fact Reynolds filmed the atrocity is cause to doubt both the sincerity of her affection for Castile and the man’s innocence. Each of these perversities is, of course racist; neither would happen if the victims in question were not Black, period. They are also attempts to impose order on what is inherently chaotic and without sense: the summary execution of innocent people, en masse, by the people whose very job is to maintain that vaunted “law and order.”
The unspoken corollary to all these excuses is always “therefore they deserved to die.” They didn’t put their hands up fast enough, therefore they deserved to die. They ran, therefore they deserved to die. They were walking in the “wrong” neighborhood, therefore they deserved to die. They made a Facebook post where they had a “thug” selfie, therefore they deserved to die. On and on and on.
It is here where discourses about “respectability politics” come into play—the idea that we as marginalized people should not treat “acting respectable,” as defined by those in our society with the most cultural capital, as a path to acceptance and liberation. Castile did everything right. He was gainfully employed, beloved at the school where he worked as a cafeteria manager—and his long history of being stopped by the police testified more to the racism of local police departments than any wrongdoing on his part. During this final traffic stop, he politely informed the policeman about his concealed handgun, as he is obliged to do by law. For doing everything “right,” he ended up dead from several shots to the chest.
This is not to suggest that it would be “logical” or “just” or “sensible,” of course, if all Black victims of police brutality were only those people with criminal records, who resist arrest or run, or who had weapons; those people are not somehow more “deserving” of death or abuse. And even if they were the sole victims of police violence, a similar senselessness would prevail—in a world where a minor infraction or a long-ago served sentence would still lead to summary execution, where police who have been able to capture even dangerous white suspects alive can only ever seem to put bullets in Black “offenders.”
This, in the end, is the reason. Black people are killed indiscriminately, no matter their job, their level of education, their erudition, their politeness, their criminal record or lack thereof, and so on.
Black Lives Matter—for all the unjust slanders hurled its way by politicians, police union bosses, and Twitter trolls—is actually an example of a profoundly dignified attempt to restore order in the best way possible. Its tactics of peaceful but highly visible protest demand better of us all, non-Black people of color and white people alike. It summons us to our better ideals, calling for the restoration of sense, and reason: the simple recognition that Black lives matter and should be afforded the full suite of human and civil rights. That requires structural change; it is not something one law can fix. It’s beyond the scope of body cameras, certainly.
BLM’s staunchly nonviolent ethic, and its humane approach to police—which unequivocally condemns recent attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, while seeking justice for the victims of police—actually makes a better claim to being about “order” than all the defensiveness of the police, and their many paid defenders in the press. “Law and order” politics and policing have always been about irrational fear and hatred, never about order in the sense of creating a safe life of sensible and predictable outcomes connected to one’s actions. The sole “logic” to be found in all of this is being seen as a mortal threat because of the color of one’s skin, and this fact produces a special kind of terror.
All victims have been rendered superfluous as human beings, to use Arendt’s phrase. Black individuals live knowing that all of their efforts can come to nothing due to the caprice of a racist police officer’s bullet.
With such senselessness ruling the day, is it any wonder some will abandon all reason in response, as with the killings of police officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge? That some may feel murder is all that can meet murder? The problem is indeed a lack of order, but not for the reasons many police chiefs and white twitterpaters may think; the “order” police currently uphold is one of utter chaos with no rhyme or reason behind it, save the fundamental irrationalities of racism and fear tinged by racism. There can be no order when mothers and fathers must counsel their children in the nearly vain hope that “good behavior” might save their lives from a police officer frightened by the color of their skin, when no right action or a life well lived is any insurance against such an ignoble death.
So is it a surprise when “the law,” a term synonymous with the police themselves, is increasingly not respected for its own sake? As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in the Atlantic about Micah Xavier Johnson, the man who murdered five police officers in Dallas:
In the black community, it’s the force they deploy, and not any higher American ideal, that gives police their power. This is obviously dangerous for those who are policed. Less appreciated is the danger illegitimacy ultimately poses to those who must do the policing. For if the law represents nothing but the greatest force, then it really is indistinguishable from any other street gang. And if the law is nothing but a gang, then it is certain that someone will resort to the kind of justice typically meted out to all other powers in the street.
When you scaremonger about Johnson’s crimes, or about the need for “law and order,” this is all very much worth remembering. To many in this country, the police are simply the legal gang: vice by another name, tied to the coffers of the state, with only a gloss of virtue to separate it from the illicit variety. The murder of police officers remains criminal and tragic, both for all the obvious reasons, and because the realm of unreason and uncertainty they create is slowly consuming them as well, as Coates notes.
This is one of many reasons we must cease casting about for a just world and instead seek to create one—first by acknowledging the lack of justice in the one we have.