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Commentary Sexual Health

How to Talk to Young People About Abortion

Ellen Friedrichs

We need to teach young people of all genders about abortion. Here are three ways teachers, parents, and health-care providers can do that.

As a health educator who works with teens and college students, I regularly find myself addressing a range of complicated issues in the classroom. Probably the most difficult, however, is abortion, something that can feel so political and emotional to so many people. It is also something adults—like teachers, parents, and health-care providers—often present to young people through a gendered lens that positions this procedure as a “women’s health” issue.

The result of this lens is concerning. For one thing, it can silo information. For another, it can reinforce the idea that abortion isn’t a concern for boys. Conversely, it can legitimize the belief that allowing pregnant people to make personal decisions about abortion is unfair to men. Plus, it can alienate trans, non-binary, and intersex youth whose unique experiences are regularly overlooked in these discussions.

To avoid those outcomes, we need to teach about abortion early, and we need to equip young people of all genders with accurate information about abortion, pregnancy prevention, and sexual decision-making.

Here are three ways teachers, parents, and health-care providers can help do that.

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1. Start talking about abortion early.

When it comes to sex, no one—not sex educators, medical doctors, psychologists, religious leaders, or parents—can agree on what is, or is not, age-appropriate. As a result, the default often omits a range of topics from the conversation. We know this approach can be particularly harmful for LGBTQ youth and for young survivors of sexual violence. It is also becoming increasingly clear that the failure to discuss abortion can allow confusion and misinformation to proliferate. For example, polls have found that people tend to underestimate how common abortion is and to overestimate risks related to the procedure, when in fact abortion is incredibly common and very safe.

We all want to reach young people in developmentally appropriate ways, but as abstinence-only education has shown us, avoiding a comprehensive discussion of sexuality is dangerous. In my experience—and according to numerous experts as well—what tends to be most effective is to provide a broad picture of sexuality to younger kids, and then to add information and detail as they get older. With abortion, this ideally means starting the conversation at the same time you start to talk about pregnancy.

Of course, this is something that may be easier for parents to do than for educators, who may have rules about what they can discuss in the classroom. (Just consider a recently introduced Ohio bill that would require a public school curriculum about the “humanity of the unborn child,” with the stated goal of reaching an “abortion-free society,” and which would prevent teachers from discussing most aspects of abortion.)

For those who have permission to have these conversations, one strategy can be to help younger children learn that many pregnancies end in a baby—but that some end before that, either through a miscarriage or via an induced abortion, and that others are prevented from occurring in the first place by the use of contraception. In their teen years, we can teach in more detail about different types of birth control and about abortion procedures, abortion access, and differing views on the matter. Having a nuanced conversation destigmatizes abortion, helps children avoid black-and-white thinking, and prepares them for a world that doesn’t always follow one script.

2. Teach teens to talk about abortion with a partner before they have sex.

Teens and young people often wonder how they will know when they are ready to have sex. I always say that a good way to figure this out is to start by asking questions. For example, do you want to be in a serious relationship before having sex? Are you comfortable telling your partner your likes and dislikes, and setting and respecting limits? Do you know how to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, and do you have access to condoms? If you have sex with someone where pregnancy is possible, do you know how to prevent this from happening? If you were faced with an unplanned pregnancy, do you know what you would want to do? And, do you know what your partner would want to do in that situation?

People of all ages are often unsure about the answer to that last question. But discussing one’s personal views on unplanned pregnancy and abortion before having sex, as opposed to only doing so after experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, is an important part of demonstrating sexual responsibility.

There are lots of reasons that someone might choose not to have sex with another person, and teens should know that having a different view than a partner about how to address an unplanned pregnancy is a perfectly good one.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to express sexuality without having penile/vaginal sex at all, and that can help avoid the possibility of pregnancy altogether. But a lot of young people don’t get that message, since when they do learn about sex, it is often in a heteronormative context that positions vaginal sex as the “gold standard,” or it is during a formal discussion of reproduction. Such narratives may inadvertently be sending the message that the natural progression of intimacy is a culminating act of vaginal intercourse. That can actually propel young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities into vaginal sex rather than a potentially safer and preferred alternative.

3. Teach young people about their birth control options and help them access it when needed.

Young people of all genders need to have accurate information about birth control. Teens who don’t get comprehensive sexuality education at school may not even know about their contraceptive options or that pregnancy does not have to be the inevitable outcome of sex. So parents and health-care providers should fill in the gaps by ensuring teens are aware of prescription methods of birth control like hormonal contraception or intrauterine devices, as well as condoms, which are available over the counter. Teens should also know about emergency contraception, which can be used up to five days after sex to help prevent pregnancy; since it does not end a pregnancy, it is not the same as the abortion pill. It is available over the counter to anyone regardless of age or gender.

Parents may also need to help teens access birth control by setting up health-care appointments, filling prescriptions, or even just driving them to the drug store.

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When I first started teaching sex education 15 years ago, it was still common to separate boys and girls for topics like puberty and reproduction. For people who teach comprehensive sex education, this practice has become increasingly less common. But outside of such classrooms, the messages young people hear about a range of sexual and reproductive health issues can remain incredibly gendered and divided.

What we need to do is position abortion as part of the larger reproductive health-care conversation, then equip young people of all genders with accurate information, and give them the skills to talk about this and other aspects of sexuality with a partner. Doing this will help young people avoid a lot of the potential problems and confusion that so often arise when adults aren’t proactive about having these conversations.

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