When Teenagers Seek Abortion Care the Myths Are Exposed

Amanda Marcotte

Abortion is a safe, legal medical procedure, and there is no reason for school health centers not to refer patients to providers if those patients want it.

It was a seemingly small story, one of those reproductive rights-related stories that crops up in the news, attracts some amount of attention, and then fades away as other stories crowd it out. But I want to look a little more closely at this story about a Seattle mother who is furious that her 15-year-old daughter got a legal abortion with the school health center’s help without telling her mother. To be completely clear, this was 100 percent within the law. Washington state understands that parental notification laws are an assault on the well-being of teenagers and so far has no such laws. The school health center is run not by the school but by the public health department, and students who go to the health center — including this girl — have permission to receive care due to permission slips signed by their parents.

Abortion is a safe, legal medical procedure, and there is no reason for school health centers not to refer patients to providers if those patients want it. That’s the simple fact of the matter, but unfortunately, that’s not where this story ends. What this story has revealed is that a number of pernicious anti-choice myths have taken hold in our society, and these myths are confusing people’s ability to see the plain truth of this story. Here’s some of the anti-choice myths touched on by the coverage of this story in both the conservative and mainstream news, and the reality behind these myths.

Myth #1: Abortion isn’t healthcare. Conservative bloggers and the mother in question trotted out this myth, saying that giving the health center permission to offer medical services should implicitly mean not abortion. The implication of this is that abortion is not a medical service, a myth that was also trotted out by supporters of the Stupak amendment to the healthcare reform bill, who tried to argue that abortion can’t be considered real healthcare. But this myth doesn’t reflect the basic reality of abortion, which fits all medical and cultural criteria for health care, if you look at without the burden of anti-woman ideology. Healthcare professionals offer it, others refer it, and it’s simply one out of many medical responses to pregnancies that are both healthy and not healthy. It’s also on a continuum from pregnancy prevention services, which are generally regarded by non-misogynists as healthcare. Strictly speaking, aborting or preventing pregnancy is regarded as safer by medical professionals than continuing to term, which is very stressful on the body, particularly for teenagers whose bodies may not be done growing and developing.

As Carole Joffe notes in her book Dispatches from the Abortion Wars, this myth that abortion isn’t healthcare is perhaps one of the most damaging anti-choice myths for women getting abortions and those providing them. It isolates providers from the larger medical community, and stigmatizes a choice that is usually the best one for the woman making it, causing unnecessary pain and suffering.

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Myth #2: Abortion is a dirty, naughty sex act that should be stopped because it titillates anti-choicers to no end. If anti-choicers don’t think of abortion as medical care, what do they think of it as? The coverage from conservatives makes it clear — they use the model of “illicit sexual acts” when thinking about abortion. Jill Stanek used the word “clandestine” and Lifesite dwelled on the word “secret” to describe the abortion. It’s language that conjures up pictures of lovers sneaking around to engage in forbidden affairs. If the doctor had referred the young woman to an ears, nose, and throat specialist without calling her mother, anti-choicers wouldn’t be acting like this is some kind of sex scandal. I promise anti-choicers overreacting to this: as much as the idea of vacuuming someone’s uterus out sounds titillating to them, the rest of us without their heavy sexual hang-ups mainly think it sounds like an unpleasant medical procedure, chosen by a patient who was opposed to the alternatives.

Myth #3: Women seeking abortion are too stupid to know what they’re doing, and therefore the real decision-makers can’t be the women. Various news outlets described the girl who got the abortion as “pro-life,” implying that the girl didn’t want the abortion. But it’s all implication, and there isn’t one shred of evidence to suggest the girl didn’t want an abortion. Hot Air made this explicit, suggesting that the girl was bullied and perhaps even forced into an abortion, and that the only reason a woman would submit to the procedure is that she’s “confused” and “frightened.”

Even I was surprised how no anti-choice websites I read on this topic even considered the possibility that the health center referred the girl for abortion at her request. I can’t tell if they think young women are incapable of making that request, or if they think the only reason a 15-year-old might not want a baby is that she’s stupid. I’d argue in fact that if anti-choicers can’t think of any good reasons 15 year olds might not want babies, then it’s far from proof that 15 year olds are the stupid ones here.

Myth #4: Parents own their daughters’ sexuality, and this control can be managed solely through restricting access to reproductive health care. The mother in this case was quoted as saying, “Makes me feel like my rights were completely stripped away.” But the right to what, exactly? Anti-choicers promote to parents this notion that they own their daughters’ sexuality, and they can make abstaining from sex a rule that can be enforced through restricting access to birth control and abortion. Stanek made this argument clear, implying that it was access to birth control and sex education that caused the girl’s pregnancy and only by taking away both will parents gain their rightful control over teenager girls’ bodies.

It’s a long-standing hope of the patriarchy, one that explains everything female genital mutilation to abstinence-only education. It’s also completely silly. Most parents disapprove of sex for teenagers. Abstinence-only was the law of the land for a long time. And yet half of teenagers obey their hormones and not their parents.

The worst part about this myth is that it’s a PR move from anti-choicers to appeal to parents’ desires not to have pregnant teenagers, but it doesn’t actually reflect their obviously warm and fuzzy feelings towards teenagers having more babies. Those feelings only come out after the pregnancy occurs — witness the adulation for the Palin family for embracing teen motherhood for a daughter instead of college, or even witness the anti-choicers suggesting that the only reason a 15-year-old might wish to avoid teen motherhood is she’s being bullied by the school. I wouldn’t trust people who are so enthusiastic about teens giving birth for advice on how to accomplish the opposite, myself. In fact, I’d take what they tell me to do and do the opposite.   

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