I’ve never been a teen mom, and I don’t have an abortion story to tell. I’ve only had one pregnancy, when I was in my 20s, and it resulted in the very premature birth of Little Jedi. But my story is atypical of those from my home, a small town in Mississippi with high teen pregnancy rates and virtually zero sex education.
I grew up in a small town in Mississippi. Until 3rd grade I went to the local Christian private school, but then I transferred to the local public schools, where I was much happier. My parents took me to church at a small church in town where my grandmother and aunt were also members. I spent a lot of time there—youth group meetings, church services on Sundays and Wednesdays, and monthly denomination meetings in addition to a week of summer camp.
I’m not sure when someone first talked to me about sex, but I know that it was after I already knew what it was; I’d figured that out from the daytime soaps and inspired-by-a-true-story movies that were often on the TV as well as from long conversations with a few savvy friends. Discussions I had with my parents was frank but short.
Conversations tended to happen, at the times they did, in school and in youth group at church, and the talk was always framed in a negative way, even though it was an attempt to be positive. “Sex is special and wonderful” was an oft-echoed refrain—but sex wasn’t meant to be shared with anyone except a husband and wife, and It Could Change You.
The closest anyone got to giving practical advice about how to actually be abstinent was to say it was necessary to “set boundaries” and “avoid crossing them.” That didn’t mean anything to me—except maybe Never Be Alone With A Boy. It seemed fraught with peril—and that’s always where the girls in the stories got into trouble, the ones who either eventually could not maintain the boundaries they’d set for themselves or whose boundaries were violated by a person they’d trusted, those girls who ended up either with a baby at 16 or with multiple abortions by then.
The closest anyone got to giving practical advice about having safe premarital sex was to mutter the words “use condoms” before reminding us loudly that it was best just not to have sex. That was in school. We didn’t really have a sex education class—but our school nurse came to talk to us about sex in health class sometimes. She was candid and funny, but there were limits to what she was allowed to do and say in class.
Sometime in high school, the True Love Waits campaign was introduced to us. I took the pledge because it felt like I had to, like not doing so would make me impure even though I’d only ever kissed one by the time I was 16. I felt too afraid to ask for the birth control that I needed to regulate my periods, because I thought just the taking of the pill would taint me somehow. I would be a college student before I’d finally admit that my periods were, in fact, that bad and get some help from a gyno.
Mine was one of two seeming reactions to the way sex education was approached in our area—either strict adherence to the abstinence education or absolute abandonment of it. And because we didn’t have many people advocating for our sexual health, those who abandoned the abstinence only route were wading into dangerous territory. They were less likely to have birth control or condoms, which made STIs and teen pregnancy more common. There was virtually no access to abortion in our area—anyone seeking an abortion would’ve needed to drive several hours, have several hundred dollars, and be willing to endure whatever insults were hurled at them on their way into the clinic.
And though I have never been a clinic protester, I have to own up to my own share of condemning abortion when I was younger. I didn’t understand then, all the nuances and arguments. It had been presented as a very absolute thing to me, and I was resolute.
But then I went to university. I got engaged to the first boy I slept with, and at 19, that was a terrible idea. That I was going to marry him at all is a mark of how strongly I felt about having lost my virginity to the boy—we were wholly unsuited to one another, but I could still be a Good Girl if we were engaged. Luckily, that wedding was called off well before I could make a major mistake.
At university I also met Lisa, whose name was not Lisa at all, but we’ll call her that because hers is not my story to tell. I was a university sophomore, and Lisa was a university freshman and a city local. She openly acknowledged the abortion she had the year before, and she was unwilling to apologize for it. I learned a lot from her—and I learned from Sally (also not a real name), who gave up her baby for adoption when she was a college senior.
These were women making their own choices, and they needed to be free to do so. Sally and Lisa didn’t have to make the same choice—-nor did I. In fact, I made a completely different choice, to have Little Jedi and raise him. But I was 25, not 17 or 21.
I don’t know what I would’ve done at 17. Or at 21. I know I would’ve wanted to be able to choose for myself.
The choice is the thing.