Commentary Sexual Health

California Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Ruling Underscores Need to Connect Policy to Practice

Nicole Cushman

Although strong policies provide important backing for schools’ decisions about curricula, they do not automatically translate into implementation at the classroom level.

My first trip to the principal’s office happened not as an erstwhile student, but as a sex educator working in a range of public schools in California’s Bay Area. The mother of one of my students had requested a meeting over concerns about the “explicit” nature of the curriculum. After listening to her concerns, I patiently explained the goals and objectives of the program and walked her through the lessons I would cover in her daughter’s freshman health class. Then I sat dumbfounded as the principal assured her the curriculum emphasized abstinence above all else and, while it included information on condoms and birth control, the main message would be it is always best to wait to have sex. The approach described by this well-intentioned principal, sometimes termed “abstinence-based” or “abstinence-plus” education, was, in fact, against California law.

This meeting took place in 2005, two years after California passed the Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Prevention Act. The law requires sex education in the state’s public middle and high schools to be comprehensive, providing unbiased instruction about both abstinence and the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods, without giving preference to any one option. This approach is in alignment with decades of research demonstrating the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education. Abstinence-only programs, on the other hand, have failed to achieve their stated goal of helping teens wait to have sex.

Another ten years would pass before a judge affirmed the law, ruling just last week that “access to medically and socially appropriate sexual education is an important public right.” In the intervening period, I witnessed myriad examples of spotty implementation, such that I was no longer shocked by schools’ misinterpretations and failures to comply with the law.

In addition to requiring comprehensive and medically accurate education, the Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Prevention Act also aims to reduce barriers to students accessing such education by allowing parents to opt their children out of the classes if they object, rather than requiring them to proactively opt into the instruction. However, nearly every school in which I taught simply ignored this piece of the statute, sending home opt-in permission slips in an attempt to avoid perceived controversy. (In reality, research suggests the vast majority of parents support comprehensive sexuality education; even the parent who requested the meeting with the principal kept her daughter in the class.)

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What concerned me even more were frequent requests from schools where I taught to omit lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity, despite the expressed intent of the law to “encourage a pupil to develop healthy attitudes concerning … sexual orientation.” School administrators assured me that those topics were covered elsewhere in the curriculum, but my students told a different story. For example, one school held an annual assembly with a theater troupe performing skits about HIV and AIDS that featured one gay character. Students reported that this was the only time sexual orientation was specifically addressed in a formalized way at the school. While such programs offer an important opportunity to normalize depictions of LGBT individuals, deeper discussions in classroom environments are necessary to help students develop a more thorough understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity than what is possible in a large assembly. This understanding is essential in creating inclusive and safe school environments for all students. (LGBT students in schools with LGBT-inclusive curricula hear fewer homophobic and transphobic remarks, are less likely to miss school, and feel more connected to their school community.)

Last week’s ruling, while an important victory, was also a stark reminder of the limitations of public policy as a tool for achieving social change. Although strong policies provide important backing for schools’ decisions about curricula, they do not automatically translate into implementation at the classroom level. Sex education policies rarely have any teeth; enforcement mechanisms are usually slim or lacking entirely, and there are limited resources to support implementation. In the case of California, one state employee is charged with monitoring implementation for the state’s roughly 1,000 school districts. It’s no wonder it took a lawsuit brought by outraged parents, with the assistance of the ACLU, to force the Clovis Unified School District to comply with the law.

I do not discount the essential role of public policy in creating the enabling environment for the implementation of sexuality education. Indeed, without the Comprehensive Sexual Health & HIV/AIDS Prevention Act, Judge Donald S. Black would have had no legal grounds for his ruling. Rather, I believe this case underscores the need to better connect policy to practice by providing funding for implementation; creating systems for enforcement; and encouraging parents, young people, and advocates to be ever vigilant in their activism. If we agree with Judge Black that sex education is a public right, it will take all of these efforts to ensure that right is protected and fulfilled.

Culture & Conversation Abortion

The Burden Is Undue: What I Have Learned and Unlearned About Abortion

Madeline Gomez

For all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack. In early March, I slept at the Supreme Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments, and had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

Thirteen years before I was born, the Supreme Court declared abortion a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade. Despite this, for all 29 years of my life, the right to abortion has been under attack.

In the past six years alone, states have enacted 288 provisions restricting access to abortion care. Three years ago, the Texas state legislature enacted HB 2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill. And on Monday, the Supreme Court ruled two provisions of that law are unconstitutional.

I am a Texas native, a Latina, a lawyer, and a reproductive justice advocate, so this case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, naturally hits close to home.

In the years since HB 2 has passed, I have heard from friends who have waited weeks and been forced to drive hours just to get an appointment at a clinic. And, as my colleagues and I wrote in an amicus brief the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health filed with the Supreme Court, women of color in Texas, particularly the 2.5 million Latinas of reproductive age, have been disproportionately affected by the clinic closings resulting from the expensive, onerous, and medically unnecessary standards HB 2 imposed. For example, if the law had been allowed to go into full effect, residents of my birthplace, El Paso, Texas, where 81 percent of the population is Latinx, would have to drive over 500 miles to San Antonio in order to get an abortion in the state.

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In early March, I slept at the Court overnight, waiting for oral arguments. In the 24 hours I spent outside the Court, I had time to reflect on the experiences that have made me an advocate.

***

I am 12, with my mother and her dear friend at the dinner table. As the three of us sit together, I regale them with stories of a teacher I deeply admire. She’s been telling us about how she prays the rosary and speaks to women entering abortion clinics, urging them to “choose life.” I believe this is a good act, something I want to be part of, and I’m proud of my righteousness. My mother’s friend says to me simply, “There are a lot of reasons women have abortions.” Almost 20 years later I will learn that this friend had an abortion, which makes sense statistically speaking, since one in three women do.

I am 14 and sitting in high school religion class. The male instructor tells us that pre-marital sex and contraception are forbidden by our Catholic faith. He says the risk especially isn’t worth it for women: It is, according to him, physically impossible for women to orgasm. At the time, and still, I despair for this man’s wife, and for him. Shortly after this lesson the class watches a 45-minute “documentary” about “partial-birth abortion.” This concludes my sexual health education.

I am 18 and counting 180 seconds, waiting to see whether one or two lines appear on a white stick. In a few weeks I am moving to New York to begin college. In those 180 seconds I decide with little fanfare that, regardless of the number of lines, I will not be pregnant when I go. One line appears and I move, able to begin the education I’ve dreamed of and worked for.

I am 19 and talking with a friend. We get to a question that often comes up among women: What would you do if you got pregnant? She tells me calmly and candidly that she would have an abortion. She is the first person I’ve heard say this aloud. Her certitude resonates with me. I know that I would too, and that though I always felt I should be sorry, I would not be. I feel the weight of the shame I’ve been carrying and I stop apologizing for what I know.

I am 20 and teaching sexual education classes to high school students. More than one young woman tells me that she believes she can prevent pregnancy by spraying Coca-Cola into her vagina after intercourse. We talk about safe and effective methods of contraception. Years later, I still think about the damage and danger inflicted upon young women out of fear of our sexuality and power.

I am 21 and lying naked in bed next to a man I’ve been seeing. We’re discussing monogamy. I’m on the pill and he’d like to stop using condoms. He wants me to know, though, that if I become pregnant he won’t let me have an abortion. Because I am desperate to be loved and because I don’t yet understand that love doesn’t mean conceding your autonomy, it will take another year before I leave him.

I am 22 and my friend—the first I know oftells me she is having an abortion. After the procedure I do not know the right thing to do or say or how to comfort and support her. We will lose touch. Like 95 percent of women who have abortionsshe will not regret her choice. When we reconnect years later, we will talk about her happiness and success and about how far we’ve both come.

I am 24 and reading about Congress making a budget deal contingent on “defunding” Planned Parenthood. I understand that though I now refuse to date men who believe they have a say in my reproductive choices, I’m stuck with hundreds of representatives and senators who think they do and who will use my body and health as a bargaining chip.

I am 26 and in my home state of Texas, Wendy Davis is filibustering an anti-abortion bill with two pink tennis shoes on her feet. I watch her all night, my heart swollen with pride at hundreds of women screaming in the rotunda, refusing to be ignored. Despite their efforts, Texas HB 2 will pass. Within three years, over half the abortion clinics in Texas will close.

Today I am 29 and five justices of the Supreme Court have declared the burden imposed by two provisions of HB 2 undue. Limiting abortion and lying about the effects of these laws hurts women’s health, and now the highest court in this nation has declared these actions and these laws unacceptable and unconstitutional. I am in Washington, D.C., 1,362 miles from the home where I grew up, the day the decision is announcedbut it is not just about me and it’s not just about Texas. It is about the recognition and vindication of our worth and rights as human beings. All 162 million of us.

Commentary Politics

Why Political Platforms Must Center the Most Marginalized People

Monica Simpson

"To ensure that all people and all families have the opportunity to thrive, our political platforms must be intersectional, so that the most marginalized are centered and our whole lives are honored," said SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective Executive Director Monica Simpson in a recent speech.

Editor’s note: This speech was given by SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective Executive Director Monica Simpson before the Democratic National Convention Platform Drafting Committee on June 17. The hearing was held as part of a process to determine “what should be included in the party’s platform for the July 2016 convention in Philadelphia.” A version of the statement will be sent to the Republican National Committee. We are reprinting it here with permission from SisterSong.

So for identification purposes, thank you for saying who I am. I’m really excited to be here as a volunteer and advocate to provide information to the drafting committee about the importance of reproductive justice and to highlight how the platform might address the priorities, experiences, and struggles of women of color.

So I grew up in the rural South, in a town with only one stoplight, in a town where racial divide was blatantly drawn by railroad tracks that split the town from the haves and the have-nots. I remember being forced to sign the prom promise that locked us into abstinence-only sex education, where we were given that [information about sexual health] only over one course period. And unfortunately, this is still the case.

Also in my church, the place where most Black people in my Southern community received political education, every young woman except three of us were pregnant before graduating high school. The nearest abortion clinic for those who were strong enough to endure the shame of their community and the church was 30 miles away. There were no sidewalks, or public transportation system, to get a person there, even if they wanted to have one.

Most felt stuck within the town limits, where the jobs were basically nonexistent. The then-newly built private prison that needed to be filled was a constant reminder of the criminal justice system that separated so many young mothers from the fathers of their children.

In this story, you can see how the overlapping issues like race, economic barriers, faith, and criminal justice can make it difficult and sometimes impossible for marginalized communities to access the services that they need. This is what intersectionality looks like. And it’s because of these types of stories like mine that Black women came together to establish the reproductive justice movement, now 20 years ago.

Reproductive justice, distinct from reproductive health and rights, is a movement-building framework that envisions liberation for the most marginalized. We believe that reproductive justice will be achieved when all people have the economic, social, and political power and means to make decisions about their bodies, sexuality, faith, and family with dignity and self-determination. As you can imagine, we have a long way to go.

To ensure the health and safety of women of color, I urge you to address the formidable barriers that prevent us from getting the care we need, deny our decisions, and lead to shameful disparities. [Together], we must complete the work to ensure health care for all by expanding Medicaid nationally and passing the Health Equity and Accountability Act. This act eliminates health disparities, and the one issue [to] address most importantly to us and our work right now is the issue of maternal mortality.

Black women are dying during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period at [rates] nearly four times higher than white women. This is a public health crisis and a national shame. We must stop it in its tracks and the avalanche of state laws that push access to safe and legal abortion out of reach for people of color by those struggling to make ends meet. This isthis will be helped by ending the Hyde Amendment that puts a ban on insurance coverage for abortion, and passing the Women’s Health Protection Act which removes barriers to access.

Of course, our ability to make real decisions about pregnancy cannot be separated from the economic realities in our lives. And furthermore, everyone needs to feel safe, especially mothers and pregnant women. But unfortunately, pregnant women dealing with substance abuse are being overly criminalized in states like Tennessee. Women like Marissa Alexander in Florida [were] imprisoned for protecting [their] family and women like Purvi Patel and Kenlissia Jones were criminalized for ending their pregnancies.

The intersection of criminal justice and our reproductive lives is real and something that we cannot ignore.

Now more than ever, women of color are standing up for the issues that matter to us and demanding change, and we are voting. Change in policies, change in the political discourse, and change in leadership are needed to ensure that our communities are no longer ignored. Like the platform as a whole, this is not a one-note plan. One of my sheroes, Audre Lorde, said we cannot have single-issue movements because we do not live single-issue lives. To ensure that all people and all families have the opportunity to thrive, our political platforms must be intersectional, so that the most marginalized are centered and that our whole lives are honored.

This speech has been lightly edited for clarity.

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Watch the full video, including the Q&A following Simpson’s speech, here: