Published on October 8th, 2018 | by Jen Bryant


Teens, Sex, Abortion, and the Law: An Interview with CHOICE/LESS Host Jenn Stanley

“If parents can’t even talk to their kids about sex because it’s just too taboo, how can the government require teens to involve their parents in their abortion decisions?”

This is the driving question behind the current season of Rewire.News’s CHOICE/LESS podcast, and there are no easy answers. CHOICE/LESS, a series dedicated to examining the politics of reproductive health and justice through personal stories, tackles the topics of “teens, sex, abortion, and the law” in Season 4. Over the course of five episodes, host Jenn Stanley explores parental notification laws, sex ed in schools, and the sometimes complicated ways in which adults and teenagers communicate.

Navigating an unplanned pregnancy can be hard at any age, and obtaining an abortion is becoming increasingly difficult across the country due to clinic closures and stricter regulations. For pregnant teens who make the decision to terminate, the barriers to obtaining an abortion are even higher. Most people wouldn’t argue that teens should be able to turn to their parents for support and guidance when making decisions like this, but should that conversation be mandated by the state? And if so, where does that leave teens who can’t have that discussion, for one reason or another?

Choices can’t be separated from the context in which they are made. Season 4 of CHOICE/LESS deftly examines the climate in which teens make decisions about their pregnancies. Stanley speaks with youth activists, legal experts, parents, and a former classmate who had an abortion in high school, inviting listeners to examine different angles and viewpoints with compassion and grace.

I spoke with Jenn Stanley about Season 4 of CHOICE/LESS for MUTHA. –Jen Bryant

Host Jenn Stanley (left) recording the podcast.

JEN BRYANT: Everyone knows what Roe v. Wade is, but you don’t hear much about abortion access for teens, or the fact that thirty eight states have parental notification laws on the books, sometimes banning abortion for teens or making it extremely difficult for them to access. What first drew you to telling this story?

JENN STANLEY: I had wanted to cover teen abortion and the judicial bypass process more extensively for a while, but it’s hard to find sources who’ve been through the experience. People who seek judicial bypasses are trying to keep their abortions confidential, so it makes sense why they wouldn’t want to share their story with a reporter. So when Tiffany Pryor, the executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, told Rewire.News about their upcoming play that was based on first-person accounts from youth in the state who’d had abortions, I thought that this would be a really interesting entry into the topic.

JEN BRYANT: You talk about your own story of being adopted. How does your particular perspective as an adopted person affect your outlook on reproductive health and justice?

JENN STANLEY: I read The Girls Who Went Away before I started writing about abortion and reproductive rights, and it was the first time I’d heard anything from birth mothers about their experiences. It was like choking and coming up for air all at the same time, because I never let myself consider things from my birth mother’s perspective. I knew doing so might be too painful, and reading that book brought all that pain but it also let out some of the pressure that had been suffocating me my whole life.

I kept my own complicated feelings about my adoption tucked away in a place where I couldn’t even access them, I think because I was afraid that accepting those feelings would feel like a rejection to my adoptive parents, and I felt a real need to protect them. But as I became an adult and learned more about the world and myself, I was able to accept these complicated and at times conflicting truths.

I’m interested in talking to people about whom our society talks incessantly, but whom we never hear from ourselves: people who have abortions, or place children for adoption, or have complicated pregnancies and have to make hard choices. I wanted to hold a mic to them and record their stories so that they’d be part of our human record, so they could be heard now during these toxic times, and so that they wouldn’t have to tuck their experiences away into places where they couldn’t access them. In some ways, digging deep into these issues has made me feel connected to my birth mother, who is someone I don’t get to know and probably never will.

“This Boat Called My Body,” a performance piece put on by youth activists in an attempt to destigmatize abortion (discussed in Episode 5).

JEN BRYANT: The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t support mandatory parental notification legislation. Did you find that most parents you spoke to in the podcast thought that minors should be required to involve their parents in their abortion decision? Who does support these laws and why?

JENN STANLEY: I’d say the majority of people we spoke to about these laws didn’t know they were on the books, so they had to think about the question. People expressed myriad feelings about it, but most of them had to really think on it, and ultimately weren’t sure. Others said that while they thought young people should talk to their parents, the law shouldn’t require it. It’s a hard question because it makes people uncomfortable to think that their kids wouldn’t talk to them about something so major happening in their lives. But parents’ expectations and desires don’t always match reality. The reality is that a lot of teens are sexually active, and even if they aren’t, they likely will have sex someday.

But I’d say for the most part, the people we spoke to who did support these laws had negative opinions about abortion and premarital sex generally.

JEN BRYANT: In episode 2, you and Imani Gandy (senior legal analyst at Rewire.News) make the point that, as a minor, you’re allowed to consent to medical treatment for pregnancy. You’re allowed to obtain treatment for STDs. You’re allowed to have a child, and to choose to give that child up for adoption. However, if you choose to terminate the pregnancy instead, parental consent is required. Why is this the case, even though deciding to continue a pregnancy is arguably a more momentous and long-lasting decision than having an abortion?

JENN STANLEY: I think Judge Susan Fox Gillis says it best in Episode 2: Welcome to Abortion Court, so I’m just going to quote her:

“I think the laws are common because we have a very paternalistic society and because people have very, very different and very strong beliefs on the issue of abortion. This in many people’s minds provides some oversight that people, some people, think is necessary, others don’t agree with that, but I think that’s why the laws are so common.”

I’ll put it more bluntly and add that a lot of people, even those who identify as pro-choice, see abortion as an ethical gray area, or even as murder. I think that’s because the anti-abortion movement and religious groups, which are all run by men and give men much more power than women, are very good at keeping those who have abortions from talking about their experiences. They place such a huge burden of shame on any woman who has non-procreative sex that she’s too afraid to speak up. So now we have this incredibly common experience that everyone thinks is okay to judge in ways that are really cruel and don’t reflect the reality of the lives of the people who have abortions.

JEN BRYANT: What does sex education have to do with parental notification laws? What is the connection between sex education and teens’ sexual health?

JENN STANLEY: While I was researching parental notification laws, it just seemed really odd to me that the state would force an abortion conversation but do nothing to ensure that minors were getting accurate information about sexuality and their bodies. There’s no way to force parents to talk to their kids about sex, nor am I saying that there should be. But everyone deserves to have accurate information about their bodies so they can make healthy decisions, and if they aren’t getting it at home, school might be the only place they’re learning about sex. But most people we spoke to didn’t have comprehensive sex education in schools.

I spoke to a former classmate of mine, who we call Jane in the series to protect her privacy. She says she started having sex at a really young age and she just had no information about STIs and pregnancy, and so she wasn’t really sure how to prevent pregnancy and when she did get pregnant, she just wanted to handle it and make it go away as fast as possible. She didn’t want to have to talk to her parents about it at that time because she’d never even talked about sex with them.

A storyteller at “This Boat Called My Body.”

JEN BRYANT: For teens facing parental abuse, homelessness, and other issues, the stakes involved in mandatory parental notification laws can be even higher. What are the dangers in mandating notification for teens who can’t count on their parents for support?

JENN STANLEY: Some teens are facing physical abuse or homelessness if they tell their parents about their pregnancies. They maybe don’t even have a parent to tell. And in states that require consent, a minor may not be able to get an abortion even if that’s what she wants. A lot of people feel bad about abortion and express that freely, but flip that around–would they say it’s right to force someone to stay pregnant and give birth? That’s the danger for teens whose parents won’t let them have an abortion in states that require consent.

JEN BRYANT: Throughout the series, you explore the idea that it’s impossible to legislate good communication. For teenagers, conversations about sexuality can be intimidating, and it’s hard to jump from not talking about sex at all to discussing abortion. What are some ways that parents and teenagers can keep the line of communication open?

JENN STANLEY: I’m not a parent, and I’m not an expert in child psychology or sex education, so I can only speak from my experience being someone’s child. My parents made it clear that they thought sex before marriage was wrong, and they, as well as many adults in my life, had a lot of slut shaming rhetoric. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but their messaging did not make me feel like I could talk to them about sex in a realistic and healthy way. I don’t judge them. This is how they were raised and the Catholic faith certainly played a big role in it. It’s a cycle that continues, but as I learned in my reporting, there are a lot of people doing really creative work to break that cycle.

Article photos courtesy of Stephanie Jimenez and Rewire.News.

Cover photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash.


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About the Author

Jen Bryant is a writer, perpetual student, and stray cat whisperer. Her work has appeared in Ms., BUST, The Sun Magazine, Hipmama, and elsewhere. A native of the South, she currently resides in the Midwest. Jen is an editor at MUTHA Magazine and the founder of the Teen MUTHAs Rise Up collaborative column.

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