Kate Gilbert is Projects Manager at Education For Choice, the organisation guest blogging all this month.
“We’re not going back in there.”
The students standing in front of me, 16 and terrified, have just been subjected to a presentation by an anti-abortion organisation in a South London state school. Using graphic images, emotive language about “killing babies”, and rampant misinformation, the speaker has succeeded in reinforcing myths and taboo around abortion. Those who make it through the upsetting presentation hear that abortion causes infertility, breast cancer, and depression, none of which are true. I can’t blame the students for leaving.
This story happens to have a happy ending. As the manager of Education For Choice’s Talk About Choice programme and the next speaker, I promise not to show any gross pictures and coax them back into the room. After we lay out clear ground rules, the students relax and consider the facts around abortion. I hope the students leave feeling empowered to make their own, informed choices.
For thousands of students across the UK, however, the second presentation never happens. Lies and fear are all they will ever learn about abortion in school. Despite the fact that abortion is safe, common, and legal, anti-abortion organisations work in schools across the country. Abortion forms part of the statutory religious studies curriculum and the non-statutory sex and relationships education curriculum, offering anti-choice organisations ample opportunity to jump in.
And jump in they do. One of the biggest anti-choice agencies, Life, claims to reach 10,000 students each year. A video on their website explicitly states their goal of promoting a “pro-life attitude” among the students with whom they work. Unlike other anti-abortion organisations, Life do not use upsetting images. Instead, their presentations are accompanied by a recording of a fetal heartbeat. A Life presentation I saw in East London included the claim that abortion causes “Post-Abortion Trauma”, a “disorder” that has never been recognised by any medical body.
Why does this happen? For anti-choice agencies, the benefits are obvious: a captive audience of young people provides an opportunity to build their movement. For schools, the benefits are less clear. Occasionally, it’s because an anti-choice teacher uses the classroom as a soapbox. More often, a well-meaning teacher seeks an expert speaker to address a seemingly challenging subject, assuming that abortion is too intimidating or complex to address themselves. An internet search for speakers in their area leads to the vast network of anti-choice agencies, which provide speakers in every region in the country.
Sometimes, teachers seek to provide balance, inviting us in to debate the antis. While it’s a start, we still believe this is inadequate, for three reasons. First, as a character in The Wire says, “a lie ain’t another side of the story, it’s just a lie.” We can’t debate organisations that lie about abortion to make their case, and as far as I know, they all do. Second, even if these agencies provided evidence-based information, their purpose is to convince students to oppose abortion, for themselves and for others. A pro-choice viewpoint is inherently balanced: all students should get the facts to arrive at their own conclusions. If they leave believing that abortion is wrong, that’s fine. If they leave believing that abortion causes infertility, that’s not. Lastly, organisations that believe sex outside marriage, homosexuality, and abortion are sins will stigmatise many students. A considerate, balanced discussion of the facts, and a respectful approach to a variety of experiences, leaves everyone better off.
When I was the age of students I work with now, sometimes when I drove to school (usually early for a club meeting, usually rocking out to a mix tape heavily featuring Sleater Kinney), I pulled into the school parking lot past giant posters of aborted fetuses. For some reason protesters periodically visited my Wisconsin school, despite the fact that our “sex education programme” was abstinence-only. My colleague Jennifer has written an amazing post about abortion politics in the U.S., so I won’t go into the details. Instead I will just say that even if you don’t have giant posters in your face when you pass your local school, consider the fact that the students inside might.
What can you do? First, tell us what abortion education your/your child’s/your local school is providing. We have survey forms you can use. Second, demand best practice abortion education. Although Education For Choice is limited by funding to deliver workshops only to the London area, we provide materials and support to teachers across the country to deliver their own good quality lessons about abortion. Request a workshop, advice/support, or get involved by e-mailing me at kate [at] efc.org.uk.