Commentary Media

Shame From All Angles: Why Doesn’t Anyone Seem to Respect Teen Parents?

Gloria Malone

A Nebraska judge recently ruled that a pregnant teen in foster care could not have the abortion she was seeking. Many people have pointed out the irony of her being too young to make decisions, but old enough to parent—but the issues at stake here go much deeper.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Strong Families project.

In a decision based more on opinion than fact, a Nebraska Supreme Court judge ruled that a 16-year-old pregnant teen in foster care could not have the abortion she was seeking, even though she had the law on her side. The judge ruled that despite demonstrating a tremendous amount of maturity in navigating the judicial process on her own, the young woman was “too immature” to make the decision of whether or not to have an abortion.

While many articles about the case have pointed to the irony of being too young to make decisions, but old enough to parent, the issues at stake in this case go much deeper. In our culture and in our politics, generalizations about teenage sexuality, pregnancy, and parenting are too often used to reinforce a negative narrative and to score points.

There are obvious examples of teenage pregnancy as political fodder from anti-choice politicians. For instance, after Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster against Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, it became known in the national press that Davis was a teenage mother. Gov. Rick Perry said it was “unfortunate that [Davis] hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.” Perry’s cheap shot at Davis’ personal life ignored the fact that a woman has the legal right to choose to be a mother and the human right to bodily autonomy, free from government interference, when making sexual health decisions. Further, choosing motherhood once does not negate the possibility of choosing an abortion at a later time, as most women who seek abortions are already mothers.

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Anti-choice attempts to score ideological points with teen motherhood don’t stop with Gov. Perry. No target is off-limits, it seems, as anti-choice advocates have recently appropriated the stories of President Obama and Justin Bieber—both of whose mothers were teenage moms—to show, supposedly, that every “life” has potential. For the anti-choice crowd, teen pregnancy is a good thing so long as it doesn’t result in abortion, and until the moment a pregnancy results in a family that needs support to thrive.

While right-wing anti-choicers hog the spotlight when it comes to judging personal decisions, people of all political and ideological persuasions perpetuate the idea that teenage pregnancy is inherently terrible, and confuse supporting teen parents with encouraging teen pregnancy.

Even among those of us who agree people should be able to make their own sexual and reproductive decisions, we’re often on different sides when it comes to how we can best support teens’ bodily autonomy. While some advocates use tactics meant to scare teens out of having sex, others focus on health education, and a few go further to ensure support for those who are pregnant and parenting.

When a Ms. Blog writer wrote a post about the #NoTeenShame campaign, many of the commenters—ostensibly liberals, feminists, and/or progressives—were quick to sound off about teen parenthood as a terrible decision, and to argue that scaring teens about pregnancy is a good thing. For these commenters and others who think like them, it seems sexual freedom is great as long as you’re not a teen who becomes pregnant and chooses to parent.

The reality is that many curricula, discussions, and public service campaigns that seek to deter teenage sexuality and prevent teen pregnancy are rooted in shaming teenagers and depicting teen pregnancy and parenting as the worst possible outcome for a young person. More times than not, the overarching message of these efforts is that teen sexuality is bad because it leads to teen pregnancy, which leads to a dismal, unsuccessful life for you and your potential future child(ren).

By highlighting perceived “negative” narratives about teen parenthood, like the New York City Human Resources Department recently did, the people behind attention-grabbing anti-teen pregnancy campaigns and messages perpetuate a cultural narrative that shames young people for their sexuality, ensuring that policies and attitudes toward young people are slow to evolve.

More big-dollar anti-teen pregnancy campaigns will perpetuate “lost cause” stereotypes in the future. Meanwhile, many smaller nonprofits—working to combat teen pregnancy by providing information and helping parenting teens defy the statistics—have little access to money because they don’t have “real” teen pregnancy prevention campaigns (in other words, one that scare teens from having sex).

More than the challenges they face in their personal lives, it is the appropriation of teen pregnancy and parenting that cause devastating consequences for teenage families. By silencing their voices with fear, shame, and disenfranchisement, people on both sides of the choice debate erase their experiences, use them to advance their causes, or ignore their stories.

Supporting the status quo may be easy, but it’s not working.

Instead of society saying, “Didn’t you see the ads? Why didn’t you listen? It’s all your fault,” we should be wondering why decades of scare campaigns haven’t worked and start providing support rather than shame.

Commentary Abortion

Language Matters: Why I Don’t Fear Being Called ‘Pro-Abortion’

Maureen Shaw

Words can and do hurt, especially when they cast people who seek or provide abortion care as immoral or murderers. But pro-choice activists can embrace unapologetic language that represents hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy.

Recently, an anti-choice website profiled me, repeatedly describing me as “pro-abortion.” I understood immediately that this was meant to be an insult and a negative character judgment. But instead of taking offense or feeling bullied, I smiled—even as the vitriol poured into my Twitter mentions.

I haven’t always been able to smile at anti-choice trolls. They attack your ideology, personality, and even your family. It’s threatening and can feel very unsafe, and with good reason; just ask any clinic escort, pro-choice journalist, or abortion provider who has been targeted by anti-choice zealots or organizations. Online harassment and bullying is deliberate and meant to incite fear; it’s also a stepping stone to physical violence and intimidation.

The first time I was on the receiving end of such hatred, it made me sick to my stomach and I was tempted to abandon social media altogether. But removing my pro-choice voice from the conversation felt like handing trolls a victory. So with a few tweaks to my public profiles (like erasing my location and no longer posting photos of my children), I’ve decidedly moved beyond that fear and refuse to shrink in the face of online harassment (Twitter’s mute function certainly helps too).

These experiences taught me two very important lessons: first, about cowardice (it’s so easy to spew hatred from the anonymity of the internet) and second, about the importance of language. Most of us here in the United States have heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” While this is certainly true in the most literal of interpretations, we know words can hurt when they come in the form of threats against abortion providers or calling women who have abortions “murderers.”

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Indeed, the way we talk about abortion is critical, from how we describe our adversaries to legislative bill titles and abortion procedures themselves. When anti-choice lawmakers and activists wield language that is inflammatory, misleading, or demonizing, the public’s perceptions of abortion are compromised. The ensuing negativity, in turn, helps transform commonplace medical procedures into “morally repugnant offenses”—to use the language of ethics, which the anti-choice movement so often co-opts—that abortion opponents want to heavily restrict (at best) or outlaw (at worst).

The so-called pro-life constituency understands this all too well and has done a brilliant job of manipulating language to guide the national discourse on abortion. Even the “pro-life” moniker is a calculated—not to mention hypocritical—move. After all, if a person is not “pro-life,” they’re implicitly anti-family and anti-child. This automatically puts pro-choice activists and allies in a needlessly defensive position and posits anti-choice ideology as favorable.

This perceived favorability runs deep and has very real implications for pregnant people. For example, politicians and activists alike jumped at the chance to essentially redefine dilation and extraction (a surgical procedure used in later abortions) as “partial birth abortion” (and sometimes, “dismemberment abortion”). It’s an obvious misnomer and a dangerous conflation, as one cannot be born and aborted; that would be murder, not abortion. As a result, the procedure was banned without a health exception, courtesy of the 2003 federal Partial Birth Abortion Act. And there’s no ignoring the current onslaught of anti-choice legislation with catchy names like the “Women’s Public Health and Safety Act,” the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” and the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

Let’s be honest: These bills are not about protecting women’s health or safety. Their sole purpose is to demean women by prioritizing unviable fetuses over women’s very real health-care needs. And they’re successful in part due to their phrasing: The words “child,” “survivor,” and “protection” all evoke positive imagery, while simultaneously (and not so subtly) vilifying the person who no longer wishes to be pregnant.

To be fair, anti-choicers aren’t the only ones with a working knowledge of the power of language. The pro-choice community has made serious efforts in recent years to reclaim the word “abortion” and paint it as a positive (or at the very least, common) experience. Just look at 1 in 3 Campaign’s Abortion Speakout, the #ShoutYourAbortion social media campaign, and websites that curate positive abortion stories, and you’ll see a plethora of women embracing this shared reality. And it’s not just grassroots activists who have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet: Developers recently created a Google extension to change all “pro-life” mentions to “anti-choice.” Take that, anti-choice interwebs!

There have been efforts to move away from the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” altogether, because those simple labels don’t reflect a truly intersectional approach that goes beyond the traditional narrative around reproductive rights. I continue to identify as pro-choice because the term works for me. I believe it accurately expresses my support of the full spectrum of choice—parenting, pregnancy, adoption, and abortion—though I also understand and support activists’ rejection of the label.

As a pro-choice activist, I am heartened by these efforts and the ground gained. For so long, we’ve been on the defensive, from fighting stereotypes that pro-choicers can’t be parents to furiously trying to keep clinics open nationwide (and it doesn’t help that the mainstream media often fails to responsibly or fairly report on abortion). It’s been like trying to climb a steep hill covered in oil slicks.

But no longer. Thanks to the campaigns I’ve mentioned and others like them, pro-choicers everywhere—myself included—can more easily reclaim the power of language to shatter stigma surrounding abortion.

While I don’t pretend to have a new dictionary for those of us who work to support abortion rights, there are simple ways to leverage the words already in our lexicon to achieve success on this front. For starters, we can refuse to use the term “pro-life” in exchange for a more accurate description of the movement fighting to end access to a basic health service: “anti-choice.” We can also explicitly describe abortion as mainstream health care more consistently; doing so helps dispel the myth that abortion is rare, immoral, and a marginalized component of women’s health. And finally, we shouldn’t be afraid to embrace being called “pro-abortion.”

Why? Because “abortion” is by no means a dirty word—or thing, for that matter. I will happily embrace being called “pro-abortion.” Admittedly, the term is problematic when it’s used to suggest that all pregnancies should end in abortion or used to simplify reproductive justice and human rights issues. For me, pro-abortion means hope, self-determination, and bodily autonomy. And I’m most definitely in favor of all of those things.

I’d like to think the tables will turn in the very near future: that our courts nationwide will follow the Supreme Court’s lead and affirm the right to abortion without political interference, and that people will no longer be shamed for seeking abortion care. Until then, it’s paramount that each and every individual of the pro-choice community continues to demand progress. And what better way than with powerfully pro-choice and pro-abortion words? They’re the building blocks of our movement, after all.

News Abortion

Why You Won’t Hear About Abortion From Arizona’s Largest OB-GYN Network

Nicole Knight Shine

MomDoc imposes a virtual gag order on employees when it comes to abortion care, as a half-dozen former OB-GYNs, nurse practitioners, and support staff told Rewire in a series of interviews.

The voice on the other end of the phone is friendly, but unhelpful, when a Rewire reporter says she’s six weeks pregnant and would like an abortion.

“We don’t provide that,” Marie says.

Marie makes appointments for MomDoc, Arizona’s largest women’s health network. MomDoc is owned and run by Mormons who ascribe to a belief that opposes abortion in nearly all cases.

“Can you tell me where I can get an abortion?” the reporter asks.

Marie says she can’t. “I’m sorry,” she adds.

MomDoc imposes a virtual gag order on employees when it comes to abortion care, as a half-dozen former OB-GYNs, nurse practitioners, and support staff told Rewire in a series of recent interviews by phone and email. What they described affords a window into the workings of a private medical practice, one that opposes abortion care and attempts to suppress abortion access on religious grounds.

What MomDoc represents is a real-life test case pitting the power of religious beliefs against the provision of basic health information about a procedure that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 30 percent of all U.S. women will have before age 45.

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It’s good business to oppose abortion in the sprawling Phoenix basin, home to the largest concentration of Mormons outside of Utah, according to the most recent U.S. Religion Census.

MomDoc CEO Nick Goodman didn’t respond to repeated requests for interviews and comment.

Started in 1976 by two Mormon OB-GYNs, MomDoc has 21 offices that operate under various names, such as Goodman & Partridge, MomDoc Midwives, MomDoc Women for Women, and Mi Doctora. MomDoc health-care centers offer reproductive services like birth control, and accept Medicaid patients, which means MomDoc is paid with federal dollars.

That Arizona’s largest OB-GYN practice opposes abortion care disturbs pro-choice advocates in a state where reproductive health access is constricted by forced waiting periods, parental consent requirements, and state-directed counseling intended to discourage patients.

Ethical guidelines from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), a professional organization of 57,000 members, advise physicians who object to abortion on religious grounds to notify patients beforehand and to refer them to abortion providers.

“You need to give your patients all the options so they can make their own choice,” Julie Kwatra, legislative chair of the Arizona chapter of ACOG, told Rewire in a phone interview. “Not telling a patient information is in opposition to every rule of medicine.”

In 2012, Arizona’s right-leaning legislature instituted a religious privilege law that shields health-care professionals who hold religious beliefs from losing licensure.

These protections, critics argue, further stigmatize a legal medical procedure that’s already under attack in GOP-held legislatures nationwide.

MomDoc’s website and advertisements make no mention of its faith-based opposition to abortion rights, pro-choice advocates note.

“Drive down the freeway and every other billboard will be a MomDoc billboard on how they provide midwife care and how they really care about the family,” Kat Sabine, executive director of NARAL Arizona, said in a phone interview with Rewire. “To me it’s almost like locking down and cordoning off abortion care even more than it is in the community.”

By asking its employees to refrain from discussing abortion care, MomDoc runs counter to prevailing professional health-care norms to inform and refer patients, explained Lori Freedman, author of Willing and Unable, a book about doctors’ constraints on abortion.

“I think there’s an ethical problem there—this is information patients would want,” Freedman said a phone interview with Rewire.

It’s impossible to know how many religiously run practices across the country try to silence employees when it comes to abortion care. The executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists said the group has not polled its 2,500 members on whether they refer patients to abortion providers, but said the organization’s overall position is “abortion hurts women.”

A recent attempt to muzzle a Washington, D.C., OB-GYN grabbed national headlines after her employer told her not to “put a Kmart blue-light special on the fact that we provide abortions.” Although the facility where the provider works doesn’t restrict access to abortion care, the case and MomDoc’s policy are both rooted in a federal measure called the Church Amendment.

Adopted in 1973 shortly after the landmark Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, the Church Amendment offers protections for health-care workers at federally funded institutions who object to participating in abortions for moral or religious reasons. Attorneys for a Washington OB-GYN are arguing in a complaint filed with the Office for Civil Rights that those protections also extend to doctors who wish to speak up in favor of abortion.

MomDoc’s abortion taboo pervades its hiring and employment practices, former employees told Rewire. They asked Rewire not to reveal their names, fearing employment reprisals. Local OB-GYNs familiar with MomDoc, or whose colleagues had interviewed with the practice or work there, helped to corroborate these accounts.

“They brought it up at the [job] interview,” said an OB-GYN who worked for nearly five years in MomDoc clinics in the Arizona towns of Gilbert and Queen Creek. “They said they don’t do abortions, don’t talk about it, don’t refer [patients].”

The OB-GYN and others felt the prohibition was a condition of employment, saying that those who opposed MomDoc’s staunch anti-choice stance “got screened out.”

Once hired, the former OB-GYN said of abortion, “I talked about it, I know other doctors talked about it.”

Indeed, the former MomDoc OB-GYN said of discussing abortion care with patients: “I would always start off telling the patient, ‘I’m not supposed to talk about this, but I will.’” 

The former OB-GYN told Rewire that she’d caution patients to stay mum, and not tell her employer.

“Kind of saying, if you tell them I did [discuss abortion], I’m going to deny it,” the former OB-GYN explained, adding that discussing abortion wasn’t something she felt would lead to her termination.

The day-to-day reality of MomDoc’s abortion taboo seemed to depend on the employee’s position. Support staff described to Rewire how supervisors and team leads imposed an ongoing gag order on abortion.

“I was told in my training that abortion was not something we did, it was not something we promoted, it was not something we referred [patients to],” said an employee who worked in surgery and referrals from 2011 to 2012.

“They told us every conversation was recorded,” said a 72-year-old former appointment setter who worked for six years in MomDoc’s corporate office in Chandler, where she was told not to provide abortion information to callers. She said she’d occasionally “sneak in” a referral to an abortion provider.

“I worked in the medical field for 35 years, and I have never been told I can’t discuss a procedure,” the former scheduler said.

Asked how the policy was enforced, a former OB-GYN said, “I don’t remember anything being in my contract about abortions; it was more of a verbal thing.”

At times, the application of the anti-choice policy seemed uneven. A former nurse practitioner, who worked in Goodman & Partridge and MomDoc facilities from 2013 to 2014, said she was warned in a job interview not to talk about Plan B, emergency contraception that helps prevent pregnancy, rather than abortion.

“I was never told that directly that I couldn’t refer patients to abortion providers,” she recalled in a phone interview. “I had patients that did choose abortion, and I referred them.”

In the end, what the former employees described perhaps exposes the practical limits of imposing a religious gag order on a legal health-care procedure on staff who may not share their employer’s beliefs. Those in a position to do so may merely pay lip service to the prohibition.

“Obviously, when you have a crying teenager in front of you,” a former MomDoc OB-GYN said, “you’re going to help them, you’re going to refer them.”