It’s the Sex Ed, Stupid

William Saletan has a pair of posts on Slate about the recent abortion-debate conference at Princeton. Yesterday he admonished the pro-lifers on what they need to do differently to make some common ground with us baby-eating monsters, and today he waggled a stern index finger at us pro-choicers on how we could get the pro-quantity crowd to listen to us.

As a proudly pro-choice feminist and baby-eating heathen asshole, I will admit to harboring some bias in this area, so perhaps it should be no surprise that I find his suggestions to anti-choicers mostly sensible, though futile. It should be even less interesting when I say his suggestions to pro-choicers are largely yawn-worthy. I’ll do a quick rundown, just for the sake of completeness.

Saletan’s admonitions to Pro-Lifers:

1. Reduce the abortion rate through voluntary means.

He doesn’t really give any concrete information, within this point, of what “voluntary means” could be. I think the pro-quantity brigade have been trying ever since Roe to reduce abortions through “voluntary means” and they’re not too happy with the degree of success they’re having.

2. Subsidize maternity.

This one is far more constructive, and would actually go some way to encourage some women to keep their babies. There’s something amusing, though, in his quote from Charles Camosy, referring to “pro-lifers that are uncomfortable with big government solutions to social problems.” Right, the folks who talk about criminalizing abortion don’t like big government solutions to social problems.

There are, to be fair, a lot of anti-abortion advocates who do favor a more supportive and generous society to new mothers and children. They just don’t have much power in the movement. The reason could be, perhaps, that anti-abortion activism isn’t really about saving babies so much as undermining vulnerable women’s control over their own lives.

3. Embrace contraception.

Saletan thinks this is a viable piece of advice for anti-choicers? Really?!

The anti-abortion movement is NOT supportive of contraception. If they really did care about children the way they purport to do, then, I agree, they “should” promote the heck out of consistent contraceptive use, but, those individuals in the movement who don’t hate birth control are even less significant than the ones who support welfare. File this under N for “Never Gonna Happen.”

4. Early abortions are better than late ones.

…is Saletan honestly expecting anti-choicers to listen to him, or is this just his way of showing pro-choicers that he’s on our side?

I mean, SERIOUSLY? We are talking about the movement which for the most part treats emergency contraception as the same thing as surgical abortion. When you’re dealing with people who maintain it’s a capital-B Baby as soon as sperm meets egg, compromise on gestational age is a non-starter.

5. Choose your friends by your mission, not your mission by your friends.

*shrugs* Sounds sensible enough. I won’t give him a hard time on it.



Saletan’s admonitions to Pro-Choicers:

1. Admit the value of the fetus.

…and then he cites several pro-choice advocates who are willing to say nice things about the beauty of in-utero life.

Problem is, Mr. Saletan, sir, there’s nothing I can do for a fetus sitting in another woman’s abdomen that doesn’t involve pushing that other woman around. I care about supporting other women’s ability to get on with their lives, ergo, the fetus is of neutral value as far as I’m concerned. The only fetus that I might give a positive value is the one that implants in MY uterine lining.

I care about the rights of pregnant women. The care and feeding of their in-utero offspring is up to them.

2. Embrace abortion reduction.

Umm…is this supposed to be something the pro-choice movement is NOT doing already?

The pro-choice side is the side that promotes the heck out of contraception. We are the side which is largely in support of a more generous safety net for vulnerable families. Planned Parenthood does more to make abortion unnecessary than all the Crisis Pregnancy Centers in the country. We’re not the ones who need to prove anything.

3. Treat contraception as a moral practice.

Yeah, thing is…does he honestly expect us to believe the anti-choice movement has any useful advice on how to get fertile women and their partners to use contraceptives consistently?

As long as the “culture of life” is also the culture of abstinence-only education, they don’t even have half a leg to stand on.

More on that later.

4. Reclaim stigma.

[redacted for foul language]

5. Target repeaters.

I agree that it’s far better to prevent a pregnancy than to terminate it, and that repeated abortions are probably not good for women’s health or for use of gynecologists’ time.

It’s just that…Saletan doesn’t seem quite so invested in the “voluntary means” part here.

What exactly do you suggest we do about women who have repeated abortions? Have abortion providers forcibly sterilize them after the second procedure?

6. Reconsider the legality of second-trimester abortions.

Okay. I don’t dispute his sincerity here. I, too, admit to some squeamishness about aborting a fetus after the first trimester. So, I have some ideas about what to do about that. Basically, remove all roadblocks to quick, simple abortion access. Make sure there’s an abortion provider in every state, preferably within a couple hours’ drive of every small town. Remove all laws for spousal or parental notification. Remove all waiting periods. Remove sonograms from the process. Allow public funding for abortion services. Require truth-in-advertising for all Crisis Pregnancy Centers. In fact, let’s also allow for prenatal screening of fetal abnormalities as early as possible. Then see what happens to the average gestational age at pregnancy termination. If it doesn’t drop like a smelly shoe, then I’m a monkey’s aunt.



Something that’s missing from Saletan’s analysis is the significance of sex education to family planning practices. This is why he loses me with his hand-wringing over contraceptive use. My view is that birth control will probably not work very well for you if you never learn how to use it. If you are taught from a young age that birth control doesn’t work very well, you probably won’t be invested in using it consistently. If you are taught that any sex before marriage is just bad, bad, bad and anything you do to make it less likely to derail your young life is just one wrong compounding another, then a Campaign of Stigma at your sexual irresponsibility will not address the problem.

This is why I am so nonplussed at Saletan’s implication that both sides simply aren’t doing enough to get young women using birth control properly. We are, in fact, pulling in opposite directions on family planning. The pro-choice side says to fertile young women and their male partners, “Children are a major responsibility, so we want you to decide when, how many and with whom you’ll have them. Here’s what you can do to make sure you don’t have a child when you’re not ready.” The anti-choice approach to family planning is, “You’re having a family, so start planning.” I would be very interested to see what happened to abortion rates if abstinence-only education got out of the way.

So, before we double down on shaming women who can’t be bothered to take their pills every day for thinking they’re not ready for babies, why don’t we first address sex ed? Require comprehensive, age-appropriate instruction on development, sexual consent, birth control and STDs in all schools. Make it mandatory, none of this “parental consent” business. Parents lost the right to opt their kids out of sex ed when they let their kids remain ignorant. Tell kids there’s nothing wrong with not having sex, and there’s nothing wrong with having sex, and if sex does take place, it needs to be unambiguously consensual and contracepted. Eschew double standards and slut-shaming. THEN we’ll see what happens to unintended pregnancy and abortion rates, and if they don’t plummet, THEN we’ll talk about the importance of stigma.

This doesn’t even require any effort from anti-choicers. All they’d have to do is back off.

3 thoughts on “It’s the Sex Ed, Stupid

  1. Just wanted to thank you for this great article; this is the thing that keeps me encouraged through my day. I have been searching around for these posts under recommendation from a colleague and was pleased after I found it after searching for a while. Obviously, being a blogger myself, I’m glad to see others taking initiative and contributing to the community. Just wanted to show my gratitude for your work as it’s very encouraging, and many writers don’t get the recognition they deserve. I know I’ll come back to read more and will refer some of my friends here.

Comments are closed.