Analysis Sexual Health

New Survey Sheds Light on Americans’ Attitudes about Teen Pregnancy and Sex

Martha Kempner

This week, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released With One Voice 2012, America’s Adults and Teens Sound Off About Teen Pregnancy. This survey tells us quite a bit about the roles parents play in the sexual decision-making of young people, how young people and adults feel about sexuality education, what they think about contraception, and the power of the media.

As someone who writes about teen sexual behavior quite often, I do worry that we spend too much time worrying about (to steal a line from a friend) who puts what where and how often. While it is certainly important to know what teens are doing, it is equally important to know what they are thinking. This week, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released With One Voice 2012, America’s Adults and Teens Sound Off About Teen Pregnancy. The report reveals the results of a nationally- representative survey of teens (ages 12 to 19) and adults and is the latest in a series of surveys the organization has released since 2001 that ask about sex, contraception, and teen pregnancy. The goals of these surveys are to “regularly assess and report on opinions” and to supplement the behavior data on teen sexuality that is collected by surveys such as the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS) and the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG).

This survey tells us quite a bit about the roles parents play in the sexual decision-making of young people, how young people and adults feel about sexuality education, what they think about contraception, and the power of the media. 

The Role of Parents  

Adults seem to worry a lot about the negative messages that young people receive from the media and their friends but it turns out that they need not be so concerned. The survey found that when it comes to sexuality, parents are more influential than anyone else including peers, media, religious leaders, and teachers. Moreover, the survey found that teens think it would be easier to avoid pregnancy with their parents’ help and support. Unfortunately, while they think their parents have good intentions, many teens believe them to be unprepared to talk about these issues.  Specifically, teens were asked:

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When it comes to your/teens’ decisions about sex, who is most influential?

  • 43 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 said parents, 19 percent said friends, 8 percent said the media, 6 percent said religious leaders, 5 percent said siblings, 5 percent said teachers and educators, and 8 percent said someone else.
  • 36 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 said parents, 24 percent said friends, 9 percent said the media, 6 percent said siblings, 4 percent said teachers and educators, and 12 percent said someone else.

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement:  “It would be much easier for teens to postpone sexual activity and avoid pregnancy if they were able to have more open, honest conversation about these topics with their parents.”

  • 87 percent of teens (ages 12 to 19) agreed with this statement with 53 percent saying they strongly agreed and 34 percent saying they somewhat agreed.

How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: “Parents believe they should talk to their kids about sex but often don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when it to start.”

  • 90 percent of teens agreed with this statement with 51 percent saying they strongly agreed and 34 percent saying they somewhat agreed. 

Teens’ overall desire to talk to their parents did not surprise the author of the survey who explains that it is in line with “a large body of social science research suggesting that overall closeness between parents and their children, shared activities, parental presence in the home, and parental caring and concern are all associated with a reduced risk of early sex and teen pregnancy.”

Monica Rodriguez, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), is also not surprised by these findings: “This confirms what we’ve known, that teens look to their parents and want to hear from them on these issues and that parents need to be prepared to answers their kids’ questions.”   

The survey suggests that parents really do want to help their teens navigate the tricky waters of sexuality and sexual behavior. For example, 90 percent of adults agreed that talking to parents would help teens delay sexual activity and prevent teen pregnancy. And, contrary to the images we have of parents running out to buy chastity belts at the first sign their teen is sexually active–79 percent of parent of teens said that if their teen were having sex they “would hope they could come talk to [me] so [I] could help ensure they were using birth control” as opposed to just 9 percent who said they would “be angry and try to convince them to stop having sex.” 

Unfortunately, the good intentions and willingness may be lost because of a lack knowledge and comfort with the topic; like teens, 88 percent of adults agreed that parents “often don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to start.” The author notes that “parents continue to say that they really do need help when it comes to talking to their kids about sex and related topics.”   

Rodriguez says that parents should not be discouraged because there are a lot of resources out there – including books and websites – dedicated to helping them take on this task.  She adds that parents should “look at resources designed directly for kids as well so that they can get a good idea of what is age appropriate.”

The Role of Education

If people only listened to politicians and pundits on the issue of sexuality education it would be easy to believe that there are only two types of programs–one that tells young people to put an aspirin between their knees until they’re married and one that hands them condoms and how-to-manuals and sends them on their way—and that these are totally incompatible. When other people are asked about this topic (both teens and adults), though, it turns out that they take the pretty rational view that abstinence and contraception can and should peacefully coexist. Specifically, when asked:

“Do you wish you/teens were getting more information about abstinence, more information about birth control or protection, or more information about both?”

  • 49 percent of teens and 74 percent of adults said both, 7 percent of teens and 13 percent of adults said abstinence, and 13 percent of teens and 9 percent of adults said birth control or protection.

“Do you think the primary message of these [federally funded programs] should be to help teens postpone sex, provide teens with information about birth control or protection, or provide teens with information about postponing sex andbirth control or protection?”

  • 65 percent of teens and 62 percent of adults said both, 19 percent of teens and 25 percent of adults said primarily providing information about postponing sex, and 11 percent of teens and 13 percent of adults said primarily providing information on birth control or protection.

According to the author, these findings show that in the real world people do not see sex education as an either-or proposition. He goes on to point out that:

“…the extraordinary progress that the nation has made in reducing teen pregnancy and childbearing in the past two decades has been driven by a combination of less sex and more contraception.” 

Educating young people about both, therefore, is a “common sense approach.” 

One of the other questions about sexuality education also shows common sense but may not be as simple as the survey seems to suggest. When asked if they agree or disagree with this statement, “Federally funded programs should primarily support those programs that have been proven to change behavior related to teen pregnancy,” a clear majority of adults (72 percent) agreed.

I, too, agree at least in theory but I fear this is oversimplified and that without first providing a little more context, the answer is not particularly meaningful. Obviously, we would all like to put our money toward programs that have already been proven to work whether they focus on sex ed or other topics. This is what the Obama administration is doing through its Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative which provides funding to organizations across the country to conduct prevention programming. Tier 1 of this program requires grantees to choose an evidence-based program (from a relatively small list of those that have been rigorously evaluated) and replicate programs “with fidelity.” Many educators agree, however, that this is too limiting because we don’t have enough programs that have been proven effective and the ones that have tend to be narrowly focused both in the topics they cover and the audiences they are intended to reach.  Rodriguez says this is why Tier 2 of this program is so important, though it is a much smaller pot of money this funding is going toward innovative approaches and that will hopefully add to our knowledge base about what can be effective. 

To Rodriguez, though, the most alarming finding of the survey when it comes to education, is just how low teachers and educators fell on the scale of influence; they were lower than friends, siblings, religious leaders, and the media with just 5 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 and 4 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 noting them as the most influential people when it comes to sex. Rodriguez believes that: “Educators and school administrators need to do some soul searching about why this is. Is it because we’ve censored ourselves–as a result of restrictive policies or fear of controversy–to the point that young people just don’t see us as a good source of information?”   

The Role of Contraception

The survey’s findings when it comes to contraception are a bit of a study in contradiction. Teens, it seems, think they know everything they need to know in order to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy yet admit they don’t all that much about either the male condom or the birth control pill. Moreover, an alarming number of them believe that contraception is somehow irrelevant to whether they get pregnant.  Specifically:

When asked if they agreed with the statement: “I have all of the information I need to avoid an unplanned pregnancy”

  • 75 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 agreed as did 86 percent of teens ages 15 to 19.

When asked, how much they thought they know about male condoms and how to use them

  • 6 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 thought they know everything, 27 percent know a lot, 50 percent know a little, and 16 percent know nothing.
  • 14 percent of teens ages15 to 19 thought they know everything, 50 percent know a lot, 32 percent know a little, and 4 percent know nothing.

When asked how much they thought they know about birth control pills and how to use them

  • 2 percent of teens ages 12 to 14 thought they know everything, 12 percent know a lot, 47 percent know a little, and 38 percent know nothing.
  • 6 percent of teens ages 15 to 19 thought they know everything, 30 percent know a lot, 48 percent know a little, and 16 percent know nothing.

When asked how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “It doesn’t matter whether you use birth control or not, when it is your time to get pregnant it will happen”

  • 42 percent of teens agreed and 57 percent of teens disagreed.

As I said, these results seem somewhat contradictory. Teens are committed to preventing pregnancy and think they know how but in order to truly know how they would need all of the information about both male condoms and the pill and few teens even pretend they know it all.  (And I’d venture to bet some of the select few who think they do are wrong.)  Obviously, this suggests that we need to provide more information to teens about the ways in which they can protect themselves but I fear that this may not be enough if more than 40 percent of teens think contraception is irrelevant if it’s their “time to get pregnant.”

I think this speaks to a general negative attitude that we have toward contraception in this country; whether it’s abstinence-only-until-marriage programs telling students that using a condom is akin to playing Russian Roulette or Rush Limbaugh telling a law student that asking for contraceptive coverage was proof she was a slut. Providing young people with information about contraception–particularly male condoms which also protect against STIs–is a vital first step but we have to change the tone of the conversation about this topic completely if we’re going to make more progress. 

The good news is that adults seem to understand this and agree that our political dialogue, at least, is missing the mark on this issue. Specifically, 75 percent of adults agreed with the statement, “Policymakers who are opposed to abortion should be strong supporters of birth control.” The author explains this sentiment eloquently, saying:

“Over the past year, much of the public discourse about contraception has been considerably less than enlightening. In particular, the number of public figures and policymakers cynically conflating abortion and birth control has been especially disheartening and puzzling. That men and women of good will disagree about abortion is understandable; the hostility to preventing the unplanned pregnancies that frequently lead to abortion is not.”  

The Role of the Media

The survey also asked parents and adults about the role of the media and though, as I mentioned earlier, few young people referred to this as the strongest influence on their opinions about sexuality, participants readily agreed that the media does play a role. For example 75 percent of teen boys and 84 percent of teen girls agreed with the statement, “When a TV or character I like deals with teen pregnancy it makes me think more about my own risk of causing pregnancy and how to avoid it.” 

Teens and adults were asked specifically about the MTV shows 16 & Pregnant and Teen Moms which have been the source of contention with some viewers thinking they glamorize teen pregnancy and make celebrities out of teen moms and others believing that they show a realistic portrayal of the difficulties of parenting young. Most of the teens who had seen the show fell into this latter category with 77 percent believing it “helps teens understand the challenges of pregnancy and parenting.” Parents of teens though were less convinced with only 53 percent taking that point of view and 48 percent believing it “makes pregnancy and parenting look easy and fun.” 

We sexuality educators talk a lot about “teachable moments” when it comes to media message and often suggest that parents use what they see on TV to start conversations.  Both adults (75 percent) and teens (73 percent) agreed that the television shows or movies can be good launching points for conversations between parents and teens though only 47 percent of teens says this actually happens sometimes or often in their family.  Interestingly, 74 percent of parents of teens said they did use TV to spark conversation sometimes or often. The difference in responses between teens and parents does make one wonder what parents were really saying and what their teens were really hearing.

The authors concluded: “In short, media can, and often is, a force for good on teen pregnancy and related issue.”  I will just add that it is up to those of us in education and public health to reach out to media makers to help them use this power for good and not just salaciousness or profit. 

Keep Asking

The survey is quite extensive and asks many more questions of teens than I can cover here but I do want to touch on the one that I find most disturbing. Teens who have had sexual intercourse were asked if they wish they had waited longer; a majority (78 percent of sexually experienced teens 12 to 14 and 55 percent of sexually experienced teens 15 to 19) said that they did. According to the author, this is consistent with finding from the previous surveys, “In fact, over the years, one of the most consistent findings reported in the With One Voice series has been the regret many teens feel about the timing of early sexual activity.” 

More than any other finding, this suggests to me that we are doing something wrong – though it is not immediately clear where we are missing the mark.  Is it that teens are continually being pressured into having sex before they really want to? If so, what are the key sources of these pressures, how can we help teens handle them, and how do we change those message in the long term? Or, is it that through our very mixed messages about sex, teens are taught that they can have sex but really should feel at least a little bad about it afterward. Either way, we need to do better.  Rodriguez sees it as evidence of the gaps in education: “This is where we are missing the boat about what young people really want from sexuality education. It should be less about plumbing and symptoms and more about the decision making. If we gave young people more opportunities to have honest and real conversations about sex and consider their own feeling and values about it, maybe they would feel better about their decisions.”

Insights like these are why surveys that go beyond who does what, with whom, and how often are important.  This one asks many important questions but, of course, I have many more.  Let’s keep asking so we can understand not just what teens are doing but what they are thinking and feeling in order to make better policies, create better programs, and ensure that teens make decisions they are comfortable with – even after the fact.     

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.

Culture & Conversation Politics

Latino Votes Count or ‘Why Would They Be Trying to Suppress Them?’: Dolores Huerta on What’s at Stake in 2016

Ally Boguhn

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta told Rewire. Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their vote might be suppressed in the first place.

Republican nominee Donald Trump launched his campaign for president in June 2015 with a speech notoriously claiming Mexican immigrants to the United States “are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists.”

Since then, both Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party at large have continued to rely upon anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric to drum up support. Take for example, this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio—whose department came under fire earlier this year for racially profiling Latinos—was invited to take the stage to push Trump’s proposed 2,000-mile border wall. Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that Trump’s campaign had worked with the sheriff to finalize his speech.

This June, just a day shy of the anniversary of Trump’s entrance into the presidential race, People for the American Way and CASA in Action hosted an event highlighting what they deemed to be the presumptive Republican nominee’s “Year of Hate.”

Among the advocates speaking at the event was legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who worked alongside César Chávez in the farm workers’ movement. Speaking by phone the next day with Rewire, Huerta—who has endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—detailed the importance of Latinos getting involved in the 2016 election, and what she sees as being at stake for the community.

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The Trump campaign is “promoting a culture of violence,” Huerta told Rewire, adding that it “is not just limited to the rallies,” which have sometimes ended in violent incidents, “but when he is attacking Mexicans, and gays, and women, and making fun of disabled people.”

Huerta didn’t just see this kind of rhetoric as harmful to Latinos. When asked about its effect on the country at large, she suggested it affected not only those who already held racist beliefs, but also people living in the communities of color those people may then target. “For those people who are already racist, it sort of reinforces their racism,” she said. “I think people have their own frustrations in their lives and they take it out on immigrants, they take it out on women. And I think that it really endangers so many people of color.”

The inflammatory rhetoric toward people of color by presidential candidates has led to “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom,” according to an April report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The organization’s analysis of the impact of the 2016 presidential election on classrooms across the country found “an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.” Though the SPLC did not name Trump in its questions, its survey of about 2,000 K-12 educators elicited up more than 1,000 comments about the Republican nominee, compared to less than 200 comments mentioning other presidential candidates still in the race at that time.

But the 2016 election presents an opportunity for those affected by that violent rhetoric to make their voices heard, said Huerta. “The Latino vote is going to be the decisive vote in terms of who is going to be elected the president of the United States,” she continued, later noting that “we’ve actually seen a resurgence right now of Latinos registering to vote and Latinos becoming citizens.”

However, a desire to vote may not always be enough. Latinos, along with other marginalized groups, face many barriers when it comes to voting due to the onslaught of voter restrictions pushed by conservative lawmakers across the country—a problem only exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling gutting portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) meant to safeguard against voter suppression efforts. The 2016 election season will be the first presidential election without those protections.

As many as 875,000 eligible Latino voters could face difficulty voting thanks to new restrictions—such as voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, and shortened early voting periods—put into place since the 2012 elections, a May analysis from the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials found.

When it comes to restrictions like this, Huerta “absolutely” saw how they could create barriers for those hoping to cast their ballot this year. “They’ve made all of these restrictions that keep especially the Latino population from voting. So it’s very scary,” said Huerta, pointing to laws in states like Texas, which previously had one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. (The state has since agreed to weaken its law following a judge’s order).

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta went on.

Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their voting rights might be targeted in the first place. “What we have to think about is, if they’re doing so much to suppress the vote of the Latino and the African-American community, that means that that vote really counts. It really matters or else why would they be trying to suppress them?”

Appealing to those voters means tapping into the issues Latinos care about. “I think the issues [Latinos care about] are very, very clear,” said Huerta when asked how a presidential candidate could best appeal to the demographic. “I mean, immigration of course is one of the issues that we have, but then education is another one, and health care.”

A February survey conducted jointly by the Washington Post and Univision found that the top five issues Latino voters cared about in the 2016 election cycle were jobs and the economy (33 percent), immigration (17 percent), education (16 percent), health care (11 percent), and terrorism (9 percent).

Another election-year issue that could affect voters is the nomination of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Huerta added. She pointed out the effect justices have on our society by using the now-decided Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case as an example. “You know, again, when we think of the presidents, and we think of the Supreme Court and we know that [was] one of the issues that [was] pending in the Supreme Court … whether what they did in Texas … was constitutional or not with all of the restrictions they put on the health clinics,” she said.

Latinas disproportionately face large barriers to reproductive health care. According to Planned Parenthood, they “experience higher rates of reproductive cancers, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections than most other groups of people.” Those barriers are only exacerbated by laws like Texas’ HB 2, as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health explained in its amicus brief in the Whole Woman’s Health case prior to the decision: “Texas Latinas already face significant geographic, transportation, infrastructure, and cost challenges in accessing health services.”

“H.B. 2’s impact is acute because of the day-to-day struggles many Latinas encounter when seeking to exercise their reproductive rights,” wrote the organization in its brief. “In Texas, there is a dire shortage of healthcare facilities and providers in predominantly Latino communities. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured adults in the country, and Texas Latinos are more than twice as likely as whites to be uninsured …. Additionally, the lack of public and private transportation creates a major barrier to accessing health services, especially in rural areas.”

As Rewire’s Tina Vasquez has reported, for undocumented women, the struggle to access care can be even greater.

Given the threats cases like Whole Woman’s Health have posed to reproductive rights, Huerta noted that “Trump’s constant attacks and misogynist statements” should be taken with caution. Trump has repeatedly vowed to appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court if elected.

“The things he says without even thinking about it … it shows what a dangerous individual he can be when it comes to women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights,” said Huerta.

Though the race for the White House was a top concern of Huerta’s, she concluded by noting that it is hardly the only election that matters this year. “I think the other thing is we have to really talk about is, the presidency is really important, but so is the Senate and the Congress,” said Huerta.

“We’ve got to make sure we get good people elected at every level, starting at school board level, city council, supervisors, commissioners, etc. state legislatures …. We’ve got to make sure reasonable people will be elected, and reasonable people are voted into office.”


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