Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby: The Candidates on Sex Ed, In Their Own Words

Sarah Seltzer

Comprehensive sex ed has become one of the most winnable reproductive health issues, for Democrats and pro-choice Republicans alike. Where do the candidates stand on sexuality education?

Recently, the troubling issues
surrounding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs — like that they don’t work — have started getting some public
attention. This newfound spotlight on sex-ed (or the lack thereof) has
come from discouraging sources, whether it was cries of hypocrisy spurred
by Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, or a recent rise in teen STIs and teen
pregnancy after years of decline.  

But attention is attention,
and the 2008 election is a great chance to re-examine what kind of sex
ed Americans want for their kids. Here are some of the different bullet-points
being batted back and forth in the debate, and where the candidates
stand on them in their own words. 

I’ll tell you when you’re
older: The facts when age-appropriate

Democratic candidate Barack
Obama has made it clear that in his mind, comprehensive sex ed is the
pragmatic approach, and should begin before kids begin experimenting
sexually – even while valuing the belief that young people should hold
off on sexual activity. At an appearance in the summer of 2007, ABC reported Obama as saying: 

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    "Keep in mind: I honor
    and respect young people who choose to delay sexual activity. I’ve
    got two daughters, and I want them to understand that sex is not something
    casual. That’s something that we definitely want to communicate and
    should be part of any curriculum. But we also know that when the statistics
    tell us that nearly half of 15 to 19 year olds are engaging in sexual
    activity, that for us to leave them in ignorance is potentially consigning
    them to illness, pregnancy, poverty, and in some cases, death." 

Age-appropriate sex-ed means
increasing kids’ knowledge as they get older, starting from how to
recognize inappropriate touching in grade school, and building up towards
explaining puberty, relationship dynamics, and eventually, contraception
and protection against STDs when those topics become pertinent to students’

Obama was a supporter of age-appropriate
legislation in Illinois, which made him the target
of ads from his opponents’ campaign
The misleading ads implied that Obama wanted to teach kindergarteners
about sex, when in fact the program he sponsored stipulated age-appropriate
education: that at this early age, they learn how to recognize sexual abuse

Marched towards the altar:
Promoting heterosexual marriage and gender-norms.

One of the complaints against
abstinence-only education is that it doesn’t allow for alternate sexualities.
In June 2007, Republican candidate John McCain and other Republican
legislators signed a letter addressed to the heads of the Senate
Finance Committee, expressing their wholehearted backing of the Title
V abstinence-only program. This program doles out funds to the states
for education programs that specifically leave out information about
birth control. It’s a $50 million dollar juggernaut, as the legislators
noted in their letter, which included the following line:  

    "… saving sex until
    marriage and remaining faithful afterwards is the best choice for health
    and happiness." 

Of course, this leaves out
those who don’t fall into heterosexual partnerships and those teens
who have already begun to be sexually active. 

A related critique of abstinence-only programs is about their use of gender norms and "shaming" — such as the
infamous "tape/candy" exercises where women are told
that once they have been sexually active, they’re as desirable as
chewed candy or used-up tape. Obama linked this shaming aspect with
the importance of medical accuracy: 

    "I’m going to teach [my
    daughters] first of all about values and morals, but if they make a
    mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby. I don’t want them punished
    with an STD at the age of 16."

While this comment garnered
some heat, it showed his understanding of the gendered-double standard-and
the undue burden on women to be the sexual gatekeepers that is part
of the abstinence-only worldview. 

Look it up: Medically accurate

Barack Obama is one of several
secondary-sponsors of a bill now up for consideration, the "Prevention First
" which is
a comprehensive family planning umbrella bill with a number of subsidiary
goals, from rape victim assistance to emergency contraception (his running-mate
Joe Biden is also a sponsor).  The Prevention First Act states

    "Any information concerning
    the use of a contraceptive provided through any federally funded sex
    education, family life education, abstinence education, comprehensive
    health education, or character education program shall be medically
    accurate and shall include health benefits and failure rates relating
    to the use of such contraceptive." 

Among Prevention First’s
daughter bills is the REAL (Real Education About Life) Act, which
includes several stipulations that those programs be truthful about the
advantages and risk of each kind of contraception. 

Obama also proudly notes his
position on his campaign website, and uses his sponsorship of 
"Prevention First" as an example of what he would do to promote
women’s reproductive health. 

On the other hand, McCain’s
stance on medically accurate information is unclear, since he famously
hemmed and hawed over a question by a reporter that touched on the fundamental
science that would be taught to students in a sex ed program. As Cristina
Page and others reported, this exchange with a reporter took
place on McCain’s campaign bus. Here is a partial transcript: 

    Q: "What about grants
    for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions
    about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is
    just abstinence?" 

    Mr. McCain: (Long pause)
    "Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy." 

    Q: "So no contraception,
    no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives
    help stop the spread of HIV?" 

    Mr. McCain: (Long pause)
    "You’ve stumped me."


    Q: "But you would
    agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
    Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?" 

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second
pause) …. I’ve never gotten into these issues before." 

Abstinence-Only on the wane 

A search of McCain’s campaign
website for the terms "sex education" and even "sex" yielded
zero results. But the Republican platform calls for a replacement of all family
planning programs for teens with abstinence-only programs. 

In fact, states are now trending
towards rejecting federal funds for abstinence-only,
due to the growing belief that those programs do not work effectively

Sex education has become one
of the reproductive health issues that is most winnable for the reproductive justice crowd, be it Democrats or pro-choice Republicans. Obama and
his allies have an opening to hammer home the importance of truthful
education for teens at an appropriate age, and they might actually score
some points in the "culture wars."

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

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. Hellerstedt Supreme 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 barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: 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 to provide 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.

News Family Planning

Judge Thwarts Ohio GOP’s Attack on Planned Parenthood Funding

Michelle D. Anderson

“This law would have been especially burdensome to communities of color and people with low income who already often have the least access to care—this law would have made a bad situation worse,” said Iris E. Harvey, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio.

An effort to defund Ohio Planned Parenthood affiliates by Gov. John Kasich (R) and the Republican-held legislature has come to an end.

Judge Michael R. Barrett of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Ohio on Friday ruled in Planned Parenthood’s favor, granting a permanent injunction on an anti-choice state law.

The court ruling will keep Richard Hodges, the Ohio Department of Health director, from enforcing HB 294.

The 2015 law, sponsored by Rep. Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland) and Rep. Margaret Conditt (R-Butler County), would have redirected $1.3 million in state and federal taxpayer funds from Planned Parenthood’s 28 clinics in Ohio.

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The law would have required the state department to keep federal funds and materials that the health department receives from being distributed to entities that perform or promote non-therapeutic abortions, or maintain affiliation with any entity that does.

Funding that would’ve been cut off from the state health department went to the Violence Against Women and Breast and Cervical Cancer Mortality Prevention acts, the Infertility Prevention Project, Minority HIV/AIDS and Infant Mortality Reduction initiatives, and the Personal Responsibility Education Program.

Planned Parenthood in a lawsuit argued that the Republican legislation violated the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Barrett had temporarily blocked the law after Planned Parenthood affiliates filed the lawsuit and requested a preliminary injunction. The judge had issued an opinion contending that some legislators passed the law to make it difficult for people to access abortion care, as Rewire reported.

Iris E. Harvey, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, praised the judge’s temporary order.

“This law would have been especially burdensome to communities of color and people with low income who already often have the least access to care—this law would have made a bad situation worse,” Harvey said in a statement.

Kellie Copeland, NARAL Pro Choice Ohio’s executive director, said in a statement that the Ohio legislature passed the anti-choice measure in an effort to appeal to conservative voters in early primary states during Kasich’s presidential campaign.

Copeland said that while the legislation made no effort to reduce the number of abortions performed, “it actively blocked critical health care for low-income women and families.”

Planned Parenthood said those services included 70,000 free STD screenings, thousands of HIV tests for at-risk community residents, and the largest infant mortality prevention program in the state.

In the 23-page court order and opinion, Barrett, an appointee of President George W. Bush, acknowledged that the law would have deterred “patients from seeking these potentially life-saving services.”

Planned Parenthood noted that the recent ruling in Ohio makes it among the ten states where courts have blocked anti-choice laws following June’s landmark Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt U.S. Supreme Court ruling.


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